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Bronx Cops Celebrated A Copwatcher’s Arrest. They Had No Idea They Were Caught On Tape.

New York City just paid Jose LaSalle of the Copwatch Patrol Unit nearly $900,000 over claims of false arrest related to the 2016 incident, but his fight for justice is far from over.

Jose LaSalle at an April 3 protest in the Bronx.Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Ashoka Jegroo.

At around 11 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2016, Jose LaSalle was brought into the NYPD’s Police Service Area 7 in the Bronx in handcuffs. Several officers noticed LaSalle, the city’s most well-known copwatcher, and celebrated his arrest.

“It’s a party! It’s a party! It’s a party! Hey!” one of the officers joyously sang.

When another officer excitedly told LaSalle that he was “a felony collar,” the room broke into applause and cries of “Got him!” and “We did it, guys!”

LaSalle, founder of the Copwatch Patrol Unit, was arrested on disorderly conduct charges. Later that night, officers claimed the walkie-talkie he used for copwatching was illegal and charged him with illegally possessing a radio device that transmits over police frequencies. But the officers were unaware that they were being recorded. Their celebrations and their attempts to falsely charge LaSalle would come back to haunt them.

Lawsuits settled, but LaSalle still seeking justice

In late March this year, the city and the NYPD agreed to pay LaSalle an $860,000 settlement after he accused the police of false arrest, imprisonment, and conspiracy. Also in March, he received $65,000 to settle a separate lawsuit against the department.

But LaSalle wants more than monetary settlements. At protests he held on April 3 outside Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark’s office and Police Service Area 7, LaSalle said he wants the cops and prosecutors who he said tried to frame him held accountable. He and his lawyer are now considering taking their case to the Department of Justice.

“We gathered in front of the Bronx district attorney’s office to send her a message that she needs to indict these officers that have cost the city close to a million dollars and are still working, and are still doing the same things that they’ve been doing,” LaSalle told The Appeal. “And also, from there, we ended up marching to PSA 7 because we want to send them a message, too, that what they’re doing is standing behind criminals. These officers perjured themselves, and they committed a crime because they tried to set me up with felony charges.”

Bronx cops celebrate an arrest

LaSalle was part of a coalition of activists and families affected by gang raids who sought to push back against them. Just months before LaSalle was arrested, NYPD and myriad federal law enforcement agencies raided the homes of people living in the New York City Housing Authority’s Eastchester Gardens housing complex and made mass arrests. One hundred twenty people were indicted in federal court in what the Department of Justice lauded as “the largest gang takedown in New York City history.”

So LaSalle started paying extra attention to police in public housing during his routine copwatching. The night of the arrest, he was in NYCHA’s Patterson Houses in the Bronx. He began recording Sgt. Miguel Frias, Officer Felix Baez, and Officer Elvis F. Duran conducting stop-and-frisks on two young men. After the officers finished searching the men, they turned their attention toward LaSalle. “Y’all need to stop harassing people for no fucking reason, though,” LaSalle told the officers. The cops got angry at LaSalle for cursing at them.

“It’s my freedom of speech,” LaSalle responded. “I could say what the fuck I want to say. What you going to do? Show your true colors?” One of the officers then told LaSalle to “shut the fuck up” to which LaSalle responded “you shut the fuck up!” Then the cops handcuffed him.

The incident was caught on video.

In the patrol vehicle, LaSalle told the officers, “This is something that you’re going to have to answer to, believe me.”

They replied that they had “no problem” because it “doesn’t cost [them] anything.” LaSalle responded, “You’re right! It doesn’t cost you anything. It costs the fucking taxpayers money.”

When the officers brought him to the NYPD’s Police Service Area 7 in handcuffs, LaSalle noticed that it was in the middle of the shift change, so there were more than 20 officers present. That’s when the officers started celebrating.

“Oh, Jose LaSalle!” one officer yelled as other officers laughed.

“He told me to Google him. I didn’t believe him!” another one of the officers joked.

“Now for him, filming is a crime, right? All right,” LaSalle responded.

And then one of the officers sang: “It’s a party! It’s a party! It’s a party! Hey!”

The police searched LaSalle and removed his belongings from his pockets. They found the two-way radio that he used to communicate with Copwatch Patrol Unit members. LaSalle explained how he used his radio, but the officers insisted that it was a scanner transmitting on the NYPD’s frequency.

“This is illegal. You are now transmitting in our frequency,” one officer triumphantly told LaSalle as others cheered. “You are a collar, my man. You are a felony collar! You cannot transmit in our frequency. That is a FEL-O-NY!”

Loud applause broke out and several officers jokingly cheered, “Got him!”

A fleeting moment of freedom

Months before LaSalle’s arrest, someone taunted and threatened cops on the NYPD radio frequency. The media closely covered the story, so when LaSalle was arrested in August 2016, one officer told a fellow officer to “make sure you call operations, let them know, ’cause they’re looking for guys with this.” That officer also commented that LaSalle’s arrest was “a great collar, especially right now.” A month later, the police said they found the people who were actually responsible for using their radio frequency.

“I was in a cell all the way until 6 in the morning,” LaSalle told The Appeal. “Then they transferred me to the Bronx Central Booking, and I was there until about 9 at night when I was mysteriously released.”

As LaSalle waited to see a judge at Central Booking, he was told to go with an officer. LaSalle cautiously agreed, but the officer refused to answer when he asked, “Where are you taking me?” The officer took LaSalle to a back door, released him, told him he was free to go, and closed the door behind him. LaSalle was confused; he thought it was a set-up so the NYPD could claim he attempted to escape. He would later learn the NYPD had tried to charge him with disorderly conduct and illegally possessing a radio that could transmit over police frequencies, but the Bronx district attorney declined to prosecute.

When LaSalle realized that he was free, he went to Police Service Area 7 to retrieve his belongings.

“I went to pick up every single thing they took from me,” LaSalle told The Appeal. LaSalle then traveled to the Crown Diner on 161st Street in the Bronx to meet with friends doing jail support that night. “I ordered a deluxe cheeseburger with fries. Before the cheeseburger with fries got there, the police got there.” Deputy Inspector Jerry O’Sullivan, Lieutenant Eric Dym, Lieutenant Ramon Tejeda, and Sgt. Raymond Contreras then entered the diner to re-arrest LaSalle.

Shannon Jones, an activist with the abolitionist group Why Accountability, was with LaSalle in the diner that night. “This is really weird because this is your top brass of the precinct rolling up to speak to one guy,” Jones told The Appeal. “The cops basically form this perimeter around Jose and begin to get on their phones and you can hear them discuss the need to confiscate Jose’s technological equipment.”

In a video of LaSalle’s re-arrest, the officers can be seen asking him about the copwatching equipment he had when he was first arrested. After making some calls and talking among themselves, the cops decided to handcuff LaSalle. They told him he was accidentally released without seeing a judge, and took him back to Police Service Area 7 to give him a court date. LaSalle and his lawyer later learned that once LaSalle was released, several top NYPD officials called Bronx DA Clark to inform her that one of her assistant DAs had made a mistake by declining to prosecute and that LaSalle needed to be re-arrested and have his charges reinstated.

Back at Police Service Area 7, officers asked LaSalle for the passcode to his phone. He refused. They took him back to Central Booking where he was eventually given a desk appearance ticket that didn’t even list his charges. He was again released without seeing a judge. When LaSalle went to collect his belongings for a second time, the police said his two phones, a video camera, his two-way radio, and a GoPro camera were being vouchered as evidence. Days later, on Aug. 16, LaSalle and other copwatchers held a rally outside NYPD headquarters to raise awareness of what happened.

Audio of arrests emerge

In January 2017, the Bronx DA’s office dropped all the charges against LaSalle, including illegal possession of a police radio, and sealed the case. Later that month, LaSalle and his lawyer, Jeffrey Emdin, went to pick up his belongings from the NYPD property clerk’s office in the Bronx. They were accompanied by the Bronx DA’s Public Integrity Bureau, including assistant DAs Gary Lee Heavner and Peter Kennedy, and Detective Investigator Peter Moro. LaSalle had Moro forensically examine the devices. The meeting was recorded on video, and LaSalle discovered missing memory cards from his cameras. He also found out through an app installed on his phones that cops tried to unlock at least one. (The app takes a photo when someone attempts to unlock a phone with an incorrect passcode and sends an email alert to its owner along with a photo and even a few seconds of audio.) LaSalle showed investigators that on the night of his Aug. 6, 2016, re-arrest he received three messages indicating that someone had tried to unlock his phone. Another app alert captured a blurry picture and audio of someone saying, “I’m going to shut this off so it’s not on.”

A few weeks later, LaSalle retrieved the remainder of his belongings and realized that one of his phones saved audio recordings of the first of the two arrests. It captured everything, including the police officers celebrating and their discussion of the felony against him.

“When we got the audio tape back and we’re listening to their conversation, you could hear them trying to figure out a felony to charge him with,” Emdin told The Appeal. “Then, there’s even some conversation, and they’re going to say it was joking but I submit that it was tongue-in-cheek joking, of ‘Oh, maybe we can slip the ADA $800 and stick him with a gun charge.’”

The audio recording also captures officers saying they hoped to find weapons like pepper spray or a Taser on him. And officers Duran, Frias, and Baez were recorded reading one of LaSalle’s fliers and mocking the statistics on the number of people killed by police every year. While discussing charging LaSalle with “obstruction of governmental administration” (for recording their stop-and-frisks), Duran said they “could charge him with it, but the DA is going to say that he didn’t come into physical contact with us.” The audio also caught Baez admitting that LaSalle was “15-20 feet away” and therefore not interfering with the officers when he recorded them. 

In early April 2017, LaSalle released some of the audio which he dubbed the “Copwatch Tapes” during a rally outside the NYPD’s headquarters. The Bronx DA’s office told NY1 it was investigating the officers’ actions during LaSalle’s arrests, and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said, “I haven’t heard the audios yet. If Mr. LaSalle has an allegation he should come forward with it so we can investigate it.”

Later that month, LaSalle and other activists held a rally outside the Bronx DA’s office and crashed the Police Service Area  7 precinct council meeting to demand that the cops who falsely arrested him be indicted. But the office refused to prosecute the officers. The DA’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

‘Something’s got to happen’

The $860,000 that LaSalle received in March over his arrests was a significant settlement for someone who wasn’t beaten or injured by the police. LaSalle said the city and the NYPD did not want to take the case to trial where high-ranking NYPD officers and even Bronx DA Clark would have been called as witnesses. “They didn’t want these officers on the stand to continue to perjure themselves or plead the Fifth Amendment because it would’ve been a big embarrassment to the NYPD,” LaSalle told The Appeal. “They didn’t want to put these officers through that. They didn’t want to put the Bronx DA, who would have to take the stand, which would’ve been crazy, [through that].”

Several of the officers involved in his case have cost the city more than $6 million in total, LaSalle said. According to the Legal Aid Society’s CAPstat database, officers Larry Nikunen, Frias, Baez, Duran, Dym, and Tejeda have all been named in past state and federal civil rights lawsuits, usually in cases involving false arrests and excessive force.

In fiscal year 2018, New York City paid $230 million in settlements in 3,745 lawsuits against the NYPD, according to an April 15 report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office. Of the $230 million, approximately $108 million stemmed from allegations of police misconduct like false arrests and excessive force.

“I feel like it’s so easy for everybody to discount people that have been saying for years ‘They pinned this on me! They’re lying! This isn’t true! They violated me in these cells! They planted evidence!’ and all that falls on deaf ears because there’s no evidence. This was the best evidence ever of what happens in these precincts,” Kim Ortiz, an activist who is also a member of LaSalle’s Copwatch Patrol Unit, told The Appeal. “Imagine how many people that don’t have the reputation, the reach, and the resources that Jose LaSalle has. They get fucked, and there’s nobody there. There’s no technology on their phone to save them. They just get stuck in the system.”

On April 17, LaSalle finally got a copy of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board’s investigation into his case. LaSalle plans to take his case to state Attorney General Letitia James or even the Department of Justice, and he doesn’t plan on giving up until the cops who tried to set him up are finally held accountable.

“Something’s got to happen. Because I’m not going to stop until these officers are no longer on the job continuing to do these things to other people. So I’m going to keep fighting for that,” LaSalle told the Appeal. ”And I know it’s a long road ahead of me, but guess what? Thanks to the NYPD, I got a little bit of money to make a little more noise.”