Exclusive: Here Are the New NYPD Gun Units’ Trainees. Many Have Histories of Excessive Force Complaints.

Adams promised they’d be different. But a roster compiled by New York Focus shows that officers who trained for the new teams allegedly beat, harassed, and illegally arrested people while previously working on plainclothes teams.

Chris Gelardi   ·   May 23, 2022
Mayor Adams delivered remarks at a Neighborhood Safety Team training, March 16, 2022. | Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

In March, New York City Mayor Eric Adams fulfilled his promise to revive recently disbanded plainclothes police teams and deploy them to sweep up illegal guns. The move was among the most controversial elements of the mayor’s plan to tackle gun violence: The old teams, known as anti-crime units, were some of the New York City Police Department’s most infamous, accounting for around three in 10 nypdkillings between 2000 and 2018 despite making up roughly 6 percent of the force.

Adams and the nypd have promised that the new units, known as the Neighborhood Safety Teams, are different. The new teams wear uniforms, and officials have touted training, robust oversight, and a discerning selection process for officers as evidence that they will not, in Adams’s words, perpetuate “the abuses that we witnessed in the past.” But the city has refused to release a list of officers assigned to the teams or information about their service histories, forcing the public to take officials’ word that they are only selecting the best of the best.

So New York Focus found a workaround: identifying which officers have undergone Neighborhood Safety Team training. The resulting roster reveals that, in many instances, cops repeatedly accused of committing abuses when they served on plainclothes units are now likely working on the new teams — often as high-ranking supervisors responsible for maintaining the teams’ standards and conduct.

Using nypd data made accessible by citizen watchdogs, New York Focus identified and is publishing a list of officers who have taken both of the nypd’s two publicly listed Neighborhood Safety Team-specific training courses. A department spokesperson said some officers may take the courses without being deployed to the units, but the trainee numbers closely mirror the numbers of officers on the teams: As of May 18, 164 patrol officers and 43 higher-ranked officers were listed as having taken both courses, while the nypd said that 163 patrol officers and 45 “supervisors” had been assigned to the teams as of the same date.

Per the records and an online database of known, closed NYPD complaints, 13 percent of the officers who have taken both courses have at least five complaints, and eight of the officers have at least 10. Only 30 percent of the officers have no known, closed complaints on their record. Across the NYPD, at least four in 10 active officers have no known complaint record, and the average is fewer than two.

A significant portion of the officers on the new units were likely members of the disbanded plainclothes squads: 49 percent of officers who took both Neighborhood Safety Team courses — and 89 percent of those with five or more known complaints — also took the NYPD’s basic plainclothes certification course before the department disbanded the anti-crime units in 2020.

The data is likely to add to critics’ concerns about reviving the street crime units. “The reality is that the Neighborhood Safety Teams are a rebrand of the anti-crime units, one of the most notoriously brutal units in the NYPD,” said Yul-san Liem, director of operations at the Justice Committee, an anti-police violence organization that facilitates advocacy, cop watch, and victim support programs. “So it’s not surprising that they’d pull aggressive, abusive officers.”

Some law enforcement backers are wary of the revived units, too. “We want to make sure we got cops that are out there respecting the community,” said Corey Pegues, a retired NYPD commander. “You gotta really scrutinize people. … Any of these cops with five or more complaints shouldn’t be in the neighborhood safety unit. Absolutely not.”

One of the officers who have taken the Neighborhood Safety Team training courses is Sergeant Daniel Berardi, who has had at least eight complaints filed against him during his 12-year NYPD career, at least part of which he has spent as a plainclothes cop. Berardi has also been sued several times, including for a 2013 incident during which he and another officer allegedly punched and choked a man during a traffic stop in the man’s own driveway after he asked to speak to their superiors.

Earlier that year, Berardi allegedly falsely arrested the same teenager twice. As reported by the Daily News at the time, he was among a group of plainclothes cops who allegedly frisked the teen, found nothing, let him go, and then, after finding a gun on someone the teen had stopped to greet on the street, chased him down and arrested him. The teenager sued Berardi and the other cops. Days after the suit was filed, Berardi allegedly recognized the teen on the street, referenced the lawsuit, and proceeded to arrest him for riding his bike on the sidewalk (which the teen said he didn’t do).

Another Neighborhood Safety Team-trained plainclothes officer, Ramiro Ruiz, had at least 12 complaints filed against him in the first 13 years of his career and was a defendant in at least two civil suits. In one case, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) confirmed him as the arresting officer among a group of plainclothes cops who allegedly choked a man and tried to delete video from his phone when he began recording them during a traffic stop. Then, in 2020, Ruiz was the subject of at leastthree complaints in the first three weeks of protests following the police killing of George Floyd. Less than six months after those complaints were filed, he was promoted to lieutenant.

The CCRB recently substantiated three of the allegations tied to those complaints — including for beating people with a nightstick — and recommended conducting an administrative trial against Ruiz, which could result in forfeited vacation days, or even suspension or firing.

Records also show that Ruiz has been placed on the Queens district attorney’s “adverse credibility list,” a rundown of cops who are known to lie or provide misleading testimony. The reason for his addition to the list isn’t public.

In response to a list of questions about the Neighborhood Safety Team-trained officers’ records, Mayor Adams’s office referred New York Focus to the NYPD.

In a lengthy statement, the NYPD said the Neighborhood Safety Teams “represent the next era of responsive, responsible crime fighting, built and strengthened by the neighborhood-specific concerns of the people who live and work there.”

“It is all part of a promise, that anyone who threatens this city, and its people, will be answerable to the law,” the statement said.

Secret Police

The NYPD has kept its official Neighborhood Safety Teams roster secret.

In March, New York Focus filed a public records request with the department seeking a list of officers assigned to the teams. The NYPD denied that request, citing a subsection in state law exempting “non-routine techniques and procedures” from disclosure.

New York Focus appealed the denial, but the department responded four hours later denying the appeal, this time claiming that disclosing the information “could endanger the life or safety” of officers and would enable people “to modify their conduct to evade or undermine the NYPD’s capabilities.” (The appeal denial seemed to be recycled from another public records request, as it also denied access to anti-crime unit rosters, which New York Focus did not ask for.)

Then, this month, citizen watchdog Eric Spishak-Thomas approached New York Focus with a list of officers who had undergone NYPD training titled “Neighborhood Safety Team Training, 7-Day Course” — the training the department has touted in its effort to dissociate the new units from their controversial predecessors. He compiled the list using another watchdog’s open-source program, which takes daily snapshots of the NYPD’s officer profile portal and makes them searchable. New York Focus used the program to confirm the accuracy of Spishak-Thomas’s list, update it, and uncover the existence of the other training course, titled “Dashboard Camera for Neighborhood Safety Teams.”

Another of the officers who have taken both courses is Sergeant Danny Aguilar, who has at least 14 complaints filed against him. In 2017, Aguilar was sued for allegedly pushing a handcuffed man, and then, with a handful of other officers — including Sergeant Elliott Zinstein, who has taken one Neighborhood Safety Team course and for whom the CCRB has confirmed at least seven allegations of excessive force — beating him.

Sergeants and lieutenants like Aguilar, Ruiz, and Berardi are a part of the oversight mechanisms built into the Neighborhood Safety Teams. Each team of five officers includes one sergeant, and precincts with multiple teams are supervised by a lieutenant. According to the NYPD, these officers are the first layers of review “to critique how the teams perform and improve upon them.”

But high-ranking officers account for most of the Neighborhood Safety Team-trained officers with high numbers of complaints. Lieutenants and sergeants make up less than one in five of the officers who have taken both courses, but nearly half of those with at least five known, closed complaints. Of the 40 lieutenants and sergeants who have taken both courses, a third have at least five complaints.

That could be due in part to higher-ranked officers having spent longer on the force, on average, giving them more time to rack up complaints. But Pegues, the retired police commander, said that line of logic can be an excuse for misconduct. “One of the problems with the NYPD is that they really believe that the more contact cops have with criminal elements, the more complaints they’re going to get,” he said. “So they kind of push it to the side — which, to me, is BS.”

Some patrol officers who have taken both training courses also have questionable records: Miguel Vanbrakle has at least 14 known complaints, including 11 that contain allegations of excessive force, and was found guilty by the CCRB for unnecessary use of pepper spray during the 2020 protests. Alex Viera has 13 known complaints, including for a chokehold, illegal frisks, and vehicle stops, for which he has also been sued. And Erick Reyes has been sued as part of a group of officers who allegedly beat a man in a precinct bathroom after he asked for their badge numbers, and as part of a small team of officers who allegedly burst into a house party, illegally arrested 17 people, and subjected some of them to strip searches after supposedly finding a small amount of marijuana.

Low-Level Arrests

According to the NYPD, between March 14 and May 15, the Neighborhood Safety Teams had made 448 arrests. And though the impetus for the creation of the units is to track down illegal guns, only 86 — less than one in five — were for criminal possession of a firearm.

This keeps with a trend in the teams’ arrest numbers: Last month, City & State revealed that, of the Neighborhood Safety Teams’ 135 arrests at the time, 19 percent were for criminal firearm possession, while 18 percent were for drug possession, 8 percent were for driving with a suspended or revoked license, and 27 percent were for possession of a “forged instrument,” like a fake ID or altered debit card.

In its statement, the NYPD characterized the Neighborhood Safety Teams as cracking down on all kinds of crime, not just guns. The teams “will identify and pursue the drivers of crime on [sic] our city — and strengthen our efforts to get them off our streets, build strong cases for prosecution and deliver consequences for criminality,” the statement said. In this vein, the department emphasized that, of the 448 people arrested, 72 percent had a prior arrest and 43 percent “have a narcotics history.”

This kind of clean-up-the-streets attitude concerns critics. “These kinds of teams are mandated to aggressively and proactively go after people who they believe may be involved in a certain type of crime,” said Liem of the Justice Committee. “So it’s just a gateway to racial profiling.”

According to a New York Focus analysis of demographic data aggregated by journalist John Keefe, all but one of the 28 precincts to which the Neighborhood Safety Teams have deployed are majority Black and Latino.

Liem referred to Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Eric Garner, and the group of officers who killed Antonio Williams — all members of anti-crime units — as worst-case examples of what happens when aggressive cops are given aggressive mandates.

Pegues also referenced Pantaleo, who had a lengthy complaint history.

“If there’s smoke, there’s fire,” he said. “And the next thing that’s gonna happen, they’re going to end up shooting an unarmed person and killing them.”

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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