New Reports Highlight Behavior of Port Authority Police in ‘Lewd Act’ Arrests
Expert reports in a 2017 federal lawsuit explore an alleged pattern of discrimination against men perceived to be gay.
Cornell Holden had just finished his overnight shift at Panera Bread in Queens and was headed into Manhattan to go to a supply store for his side gig as a cake decorator. But first, he needed to use the bathroom, and decided to find the men’s room in the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
As Holden, then 28, exited the bathroom, he was suddenly approached by two plainclothes Port Authority police officers who handcuffed him and told him he was being arrested for lewd acts in the bathroom. According to Holden, he was just urinating.
Holden later learned that his arrest was part of a “quality of life” initiative launched by the Port Authority police, and the man in the urinal next to him, who had glanced over the divider, was an officer named Michael Opromalla. Holden later testified that while in his holding cell, he heard other officers jokingly refer to Opromalla as the “gay whisperer,” implying that he targeted men assumed to be gay for arrest.
When he was arrested, Holden said he was wearing a fitted shirt and jacket, bright red sneakers, and had his hair in a mohawk. He believes he was singled out because of his appearance.
“It’s very disrespectful—assuming someone is a certain way because of their appearance,” he said. “They’re supposed to be the people who enforce laws, and they’re doing shit like this.”
Opromalla isn’t the only Port Authority police officer accused of such arrests. In 2017, the Legal Aid Society and the law firm Winston & Strawn filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that the Port Authority police “engage in a pattern and practice of targeting and wrongly arresting men” they perceive to be gay or gender nonconforming. Both of the named plaintiffs in Legal Aid’s lawsuit had their charges dropped or were acquitted in court.
Holden later testified that while in his holding cell, he heard other officers jokingly refer to Opromalla as the "gay whisperer."
The plaintiffs recently filed two expert reports. Shared with The Appeal, the reports shed new light on the plaintiffs’ allegations. They reveal, among other things, that Opromalla was one of a small number of officers responsible for the vast majority of public lewdness arrests at the time of Holden’s arrest.
John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University hired by the plaintiffs, found that just five officers out of more than 1,700 in the department, including Opromalla, were responsible for 70 percent of the public lewdness arrests in 2014, the year of Holden’s arrest. Seventy-three percent of Opromalla’s arrests that year were for public lewdness, according to the report.
“The PAPD [Port Authority Police Department] could suggest that the officers were acting on their own rather than following a centralized policy,” Pfaff wrote in his report, “although that, of course, raises questions about why the PAPD turned a blind eye to their behavior.”
Police officers in New York City have been accused of unfairly policing the LGBTQ community for decades using surveillance and raids. And the Port Authority Police Department has been held accountable for this same behavior in the past. In 2005, the department was ordered to pay plaintiff Alejandro Martinez a substantial jury award in a lawsuit accusing officers of targeting men they perceive to be gay in a bathroom at the World Trade Center PATH train station.
It’s unreal to me that an organization can ignore such a large verdict so flippantly.Cynthia Conti-Cook, Legal Aid Society
Despite that judgment, the 2017 suit alleges, the arrests continued and increased significantly a decade later, and the department made no effort to enact policies or reforms to prevent the wrongful arrests.
“It really makes me wonder what’s happening at the Port Authority,” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society who is representing Holden in the current lawsuit. “It’s unreal to me that an organization can ignore such a large verdict so flippantly.”
Representatives for the Port Authority police and the officers’ union declined to address the allegations, noting a policy of not commenting on ongoing litigation. In responses to the complaint in court, attorneys for the officers denied the allegations that they conducted stings and targeted men they thought to be gay.
Michael Coan, a former NYPD officer hired as an expert by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, also issued a recent report. He said the Port Authority officers responded appropriately to acts of lewdness they said they observed. He also disputed Holden’s claims that he was targeted based on appearance.
The Port Authority Bus Terminal “is adjacent to the New York City Times Square area and Theater district and the attire that Mr. Holden was wearing would not necessarily standout or draw attention and would not be indicative of his sexual preference,” Coan wrote.
But the new expert reports detail questionable patterns. Pfaff notes that the data provided by the Port Authority police was not detailed enough to allow him to draw firm conclusions about what drove the surge in arrests in 2014, but said it was likely not part of a broader increase in police enforcement activity. In fact, there were fewer other arrests that year. And they were unusual in other ways, he found. Many of the “lewd acts” arrests took place during weekday rush hour, when police presence was higher rather than at night when one might expect more lewd activity to take place, Pfaff said.
Another expert report, provided for the plaintiffs by Jason Pierceson, a professor at the University of Illinois Springfield who researches politics, sexuality, and gender, found that the department’s raids seemed to involve police enticement. According to the report, the plaintiffs described Port Authority officers lingering at urinals, peering over privacy dividers, and making eye contact to encourage a response.
Those tactics are similar to ones used in past raids in New York City, Pierceson noted, and similar ones across the country. In 2016, officers in San Jose and Long Beach, California, were separately rebuked in court for conducting discriminatory sting operations against men for alleged lewd activity in restrooms.
“Unpopular groups have too often been made to bear the brunt of discriminatory prosecution or selective enforcement,” Judge Jose S. Franco, of Santa Clara County Superior Court, said in a 2016 order against the San Jose police.
Legal Aid said it expects a decision on the class certification motion this summer and for the case to go to trial at some point after.
“It pisses me off to hear that they’ve been doing this for so long and they’ve been getting away with it for so long,” Holden said. “They need to fix this.”