Activists Monitor the Revival of New York’s Notorious Plainclothes Police Squads
Despite claims that NYPD’s Neighborhood Safety Teams are strictly vetted, cops with sketchy records are training for the new plainclothes units.
Tana Ganeva, | April 27, 2022
On a rainy Saturday evening, I rode with Jose LaSalle as he zoomed around the Bronx in his blue Honda Odyssey while a radio transmitter crackled with police chatter. LaSalle took a sharp turn when he heard officers responding to a new call—“female Black, male Black, female Black” and “10:34,” the code for assault—and started racing toward the scene. As he pulled up, the call faded from the radio as officers determined it was a woman with a taser, not a gun, and the caller wouldn’t cooperate.
LaSalle spotted a sleek gray sedan with tinted windows driving away from the scene and took a sharp u-turn to follow it, saying, “There they are.” “They” is a patrol unit of the new Neighborhood Safety Teams, a revamped version of the old plain-clothes units—now wearing clothes with NYPD insignia instead of civilian attire, but still patrolling in unmarked cars like this one. “They’re out here fighting crime in a way that’s unsafe for civilians,” LaSalle says of the new “safety teams,” the latest iteration of NYPD’s old plainclothes units, disbanded in 2020 by Dermot Shea in what the former police commissioner called a move away from “brute force.”
“It creates an environment of hate,” LaSalle says.
LaSalle, who founded the Copwatch Patrol Unit, one of several cop-watching units in New York City, is trying to monitor the revival of a controversial police tactic in the city. The old plainclothes regularly administered beatings, made false arrests, manhandled residents in illegal stops, and played key roles in virtually every high-profile police killing going back decades—Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Saheed Vassell, Kimani Gray.
Less than two years after they were disbanded, however, Mayor Eric Adams relaunched them, renaming them Neighborhood Safety Teams (NSTs). During a March 21 address, Adams told the plainclothes officers to balance safety and justice. “Do it right. Don’t violate the liberties of people, but go after those guns and those who are the trigger pullers and dangerous in our city,” he said.
Despite the stern speeches, Adams hasn’t introduced new measures to prevent the units from abusing civilians other than outfitting them with body worn cameras, a less than ideal solution. A George Mason University meta-analysis of 70 body camera studies determined that the devices don’t substantially change police behavior. Cameras can be obscured or turned off, allowing officers to easily evade accountability.
Police commissioner Keechant Sewell assured during a March 11 press conference that specialized training for NST officers includes added instruction in the Constitution and “community interaction.” Police chief Ken Corey said the new plainclothes units are “intensively trained in minimal-force techniques, advanced tactics, car stops.” Corey added, “De-escalation is essential to all of it, communication skills is a big part of it.”
LaSalle, who estimates his Copwatch group has about 50 members tracking police around the city, has named their new efforts to monitor the police units “Operation Wolfpack.” Their mission is to follow their activities as well as identify the officers who comprise the units, the sergeants who supervise them, and investigate their previous records.
LaSalle worries the pressure the Adams administration has put on the new plainclothes units to turn up guns will spur them to use abusive tactics. Despite their clear directive to focus on guns, data obtained by City and State shows that the majority of arrests by NST officers have been for nonviolent crimes like drug possession and driving with a suspended license.
So far, LaSalle appears to have identified more than a dozen officers in the Neighborhood Safety Teams, which altogether include 470 officers. NYPD records for most of the badge numbers LaSalle sent me after filming the plainclothes units show the officers participating in the specialized NST training, which lasts 7 days. All the officers LaSalle identified who have received NST training also have complaints against them on file with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which investigates allegations of misconduct, according to a review of disciplinary records—with allegations including strip searches, physical force, illegal stop and frisk, body cavity searches, which the NYPD strictly forbids, denying medical treatment. A sergeant who leads one of the teams has a DUI on his record. Court filings show that nearly all of the officers LaSalle identified have been the subject of lawsuits resulting in the city spending thousands of dollars on legal costs and settlements. A lawsuit involving one of the officers who received training for the new plainclothes units alleges he was part of a group of police who slammed a woman into the ground so hard her top came undone, exposing her breasts, and then lifted her legs up to show her underwear while calling her racist slurs like the N-word and “project girl.”
Neither NYPD nor the mayor’s office answered my questions about the vetting process for the NST units, or the disciplinary histories of officers who have undergone NST training.
Council Member Tiffany Cabán says that when she met with one of the safety teams in her district last month, she found that they’d gotten little beyond standard training for all officers.
“I was extremely troubled by my meeting with the 114th Precinct’s newly revived so-called “anti-crime” unit,” Cabán told me. “Contrary to all the public relations hype about the unprecedented preparation the plainclothes officers have received, the officers’ reports to me revealed that they have received virtually no training beyond that which is required for all officers.” She found that they were confused by their relationship to neighborhood violence prevention groups, even though collaboration between violence interrupters and police are a key facet of Adams’ “Blueprint to End Gun Violence.”
“Far from allaying my concerns, the meeting only intensified my belief that this is a return to tactics that have failed to keep us safe, while subjecting Black and brown New Yorkers to violence, all too often lethal” Cabán said.
At a press conference in March intended to give a detailed picture of the new plainclothes units, a reporter asked Chief Corey if any of the officers had previously served in the plainclothes units. “I don’t know,” he responded, then told the reporter she should look into it. If city officials know the answer, they are not keen to share it. When I emailed the NYPD, they told me to ask the mayor’s office; when I asked the Mayor’s office, they told me to ask the NYPD.
If the new units are full of cops from the previous, violent version of the city’s plainclothes squads, LaSalle says it would undermine the mayor’s staunch insistence that NST officers have been strictly vetted and picked based on their mental stability and clean disciplinary records.
NYPD has a history of staffing plain clothes units with officers who have a long, troubling history of citizen complaints. As I reported last month for New York Focus, more than 200 officers have been named in lawsuits involving the now-disbanded Street Crime Unit. Compared to the rest of the NYPD, their records are long and disturbing, including allegations of planting evidence and lying to prosecutors.
At least 206 NYPD officers who worked in plainclothes have CCRB complaints logged against them. Meanwhile, a handful have racked up so many complaints, you might think it was a competition: 100 complaints for detective Mathew Reich, 95 for Gary Messina, 65 for Henry Daverin, 54 for Anthony Ronda and 50 for Eric Dym. In a lawsuit that resulted in a $178,000 settlement, a group of officers under Dym’s supervision were accused of charging into a man’s home while in civilian clothes, beating him, breaking open a door with his body, spraying him with pepper spray, putting him in a chokehold—all in front of his infant son—then framing him for possession of marijuana. The CCRB process substantiated seven of the complaints for Reich, six for Messina, eight for Daverin, six for Ronda, and ten for Dym—meaning “sufficient credible evidence to believe that the subject officer committed the alleged act without legal justification.” (Unsubstantiated complaints don’t necessarily absolve an officer, since in many cases people who file CCRB complaints stop cooperating before officials reach a decision.)
In the most expensive lawsuit against Reich—resulting in a $400,000 settlement—he and a group of men “who later identified themselves as police officers” were accused of battery and false arrest. Another lawsuit claims a group of plainclothes officers including Gary Messina accused an innocent woman of murder after interogating her for 72 hours without an attorney present.
“Where’s the guns? Where’s the drugs?” he allegedly yelled at a family with a 5-year-old child, after he and other plainclothes officers burst into their home while they were asleep.
LaSalle started his Copwatch group after his 14-year-old son, Alvin, began to complain about police harassment. “Take your earphones out, be aware of the situation around you, and record. Everything,” he told his stepson. Alvin followed his advice. The next time he was stopped by officers, and asked them why, and they replied by calling him a “filthy fucking mutt,” the interaction was recorded on his phone.
LaSalle says not much has changed since 2011, pointing out that teenagers of color still feel “hunted and hated” by police.
The tactic—record everything—also saved LaSalle and helped him administer a humiliating blow to the department. In 2016, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct while filming a police stop. When he was brought to the precinct, a sergeant grabbed his radio. LaSalle had disabled a wire that allowed for two way transmission, but that didn’t stop the officers from claiming the gadget was capable of breaking into and sabotaging police conversations and charging him with illegally possessing a device to transmit over police frequencies.
“Oh you a felon now!” the officer exclaimed, as the other cops cheered and clapped. “It’s a party!” an officer shouted, while others clapped. Unbeknownst to them, LaSalle had recorded the whole thing. He went on to win a $860,000 settlement in his lawsuit against the city accusing the police (including Eric Dym) of false arrest, imprisonment, and conspiracy.
Suffice it to say, the Adams’ administration and NYPD are not big fans of LaSalle or Copwatch. In March, Adams delivered a tirade against civilians who record police, which he said has “gotten out of control.”
“Stop being on top of our police officers as they’re trying to do their jobs,” Adams said. “There have been officers on the ground and had people standing over them with a camera while they’re wrestling someone. If an officer is trying to prevent a dispute from taking place, they shouldn’t have someone standing over the shoulder with a camera in their face, yelling and screaming at them without even realizing what the encounter is all about.”
LaSalle doesn’t scream, and he keeps his distance. He trains other Copwatchers to clearly and calmly assert their constitutional rights to film police in public. That night, after we witnessed police address a domestic violence incident, LaSalle told me that he never records those situations out of respect for the victims. “Instead, I just listen,” he says.
The week before I joined LaSalle, he’d filmed an officer sticking a gun in a teenager’s stomach. LaSalle admits that the kid wound up having a gun on him, but shuddered at what might have happened if the officer discharged his weapon. On the recording, you can hear an officer yelling at him to back off as he films the incident from across the street.
After he finished driving me around the Bronx, LaSalle planned to head to East New York in Brooklyn to monitor officers in the 75th precinct, which has the highest number of complaints in all of New York City. Sometimes he pulls 12 hour shifts.
“I’m always studying them,” LaSalle said before dropping me off for the night. “It’s a game of cat and mouse. … Police chase everyone in the community, and we chase them.”