Syracuse Officer With History of Abuse and Dishonesty Leads Police Union

Joseph Moran has long faced accusations of dishonesty — even from fellow officers — records show.

Nathan Porceng   ·   June 18, 2024
Joseph Moran's disciplinary records show he beat handcuffed suspects and provided “disingenuous” and “self-serving” testimony about his conduct. | Illustration: Maha Ahmed

This article was produced in partnership with Central Current.

Patrolling Syracuse’s Northside neighborhood in March 2018, city police officer Joseph Moran and his partner saw what they thought was a hand-to-hand drug deal. The officers stopped one of the men involved, then handcuffed and searched him for drugs. They believed he was hiding something in his mouth and ordered him to open up. When the man refused, the partner, David Craw, punched him in the stomach and pepper sprayed him in the face. Moran pulled at the civilian’s cheek, tried to tackle him, and kneed him in the head.

Both officers filed reports on the incident. Neither mentioned they’d handcuffed the civilian before using force.

At the time, Moran and Craw worked for the Syracuse Police Department’s notorious “Crime Reduction Team,” a since-disbanded “proactive policing” unit whose officers would stop people on minor violations to search for guns and drugs. Today, Moran is the president of the city’s police union.

Moran has been dogged by allegations of dishonesty and misconduct throughout his career. Earlier this year, New York Focus and Central Current obtained his disciplinary records, including civilian complaints and internal documents written by SPD officers, through a Freedom of Information Law request. Moran beat handcuffed suspects, harassed a civilian who made negative social media comments about him, and provided testimony about his conduct that the department’s lead investigator called “disingenuous” and “self-serving.” And SPD leadership — including former Chief of Police Frank Fowler — had concerns about his conduct and character in the years leading up to his election as union president.

In an interview, Moran claimed that the investigating officer, who wrote some of the disciplinary records, mischaracterized the incidents. He insisted that he has the full backing of his fellow officers: “I answer to them first and foremost.”

But some Syracuse residents say they can’t trust an officer with Moran’s history to lead the city’s police union.

That dynamic is not uncommon. Officers with past allegations of misconduct and poor performance are the most likely to gravitate toward union leadership, according to Thomas Hogan, a former federal prosecutor and Pennsylvania district attorney.

“It is not the best and the brightest.”

When they searched the handcuffed civilian’s car in 2018, according to SPD disciplinary reports, Moran and Craw found nearly $10,000 but only traces of cocaine residue — not nearly enough to support drug charges. The officers arrested and incarcerated him anyway.

Fowler, the police chief at the time, directed Lieutenant Russell Gates, then-head of the SPD’s internal affairs unit, to investigate the officers after the civilian’s mother submitted a complaint.

Gates concluded that Moran and Craw used excessive force, mishandled the money found in the civilian’s car, and arrested and incarcerated him without evidence. Fowler docked the officers three furlough days and directed them to attend retraining and counseling.

This was a rare finding: At the time of the incident, only 15 percent of use of force complaints against SPD officers were resolved in favor of civilians, according to Police Scorecard, a national database evaluating police violence, bias, and accountability.

“It’s just a slap in the face, especially knowing his history.”

—Hasahn Bloodworth, Syracuse resident

Moran told New York Focus and Central Current that he’d thought the civilian was about to swallow a potentially dangerous amount of narcotics and therefore he’d “utilized justifiable force.” He hadn’t been trained for such a situation, he said, and at the time of the investigation, there was no department policy for it, according to Moran’s supervisor, Lieutenant Geno Turo.

Gates described Moran and Craw’s explanations as “self-serving and disingenuous” in his investigative report.

The city’s police union, called the Syracuse Police Benevolent Association, declined an interview request on behalf of Craw. Moran, who now leads the group, said the union prohibits members from speaking with the media.

Gates’s report noted that the year prior, Moran and two other SPD officers had tackled, punched, and pepper sprayed another handcuffed person.

And while the 2018 investigation was underway, the department received another complaint about Moran and Craw. A man claimed that, in retaliation for negative comments he’d made about them on Facebook, the officers stopped and harassed him, calling him an “asshole” over their patrol car’s loudspeaker.

Gates investigated the new complaint, too, and concluded that it had merit. The incident writeup Moran produced for the investigation left out key details, and he claimed implausible memory lapses in his testimony, Gates wrote. He determined that Moran and Craw were “less than cooperative or forthcoming with factual information” during his investigation.

Following the incident, the police department transferred Moran and Craw out of the Crime Reduction Team. Moran insists he did nothing wrong. In an interview with New York Focus and Central Current, he claimed he was the supporting officer during the stop and had little interaction with the civilian. He said Gates’s comments about his lack of honesty were just “opinion based on belief” and that both incidents remain under appeal.

Syracuse Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens (left); Joseph Moran, president of the Syracuse PBA (second from right); and police chief Joseph Cecile (far right) attend a ceremony honoring victims of the 2022 Buffalo mass shooting. | Office of the Syracuse Mayor

Moran had faced allegations of dishonesty before. In 2017, he testified in a court hearing that he told a civilian they were trespassing before they drove away from police. Video evidence once again contradicted Moran’s account: The conversation never happened. The Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office determined that Moran’s testimony was inaccurate but did not rise to the level of perjury.

The DA cited another incident from earlier that year, during which Moran stopped a car for an improperly affixed license plate. He testified in court that it hung vertically from its frame, but video evidence later showed that the plate was only at an angle.

Hasahn Bloodworth, a Syracuse resident and local activist, said he was “mortified” when Moran ran for PBA president.

“It’s just a slap in the face,” said Bloodworth, “especially knowing his history.”

Over the years, the Syracuse PBA repeatedly went to bat for Moran, defending his conduct and character. Still, Moran grew frustrated with the police union and decided it was time to shake things up.

In 2020, the union was at a crossroads. Syracuse residents spilled out of Covid-19 lockdown to protest the police department’s racial discrimination and excessive force, part of a national wave of protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Mayor Ben Walsh promised to reshape the department and bring transparency to disciplinary proceedings, sparking years of litigation with the PBA. City lawmakers refused to renew the police union’s contract.

At the same time, union leadership had been stagnant for decades. Then-president Jeff Piedmonte had led the PBA for 26 years. Moran had only been with the department for five years, but he thought he could succeed where Piedmonte failed and negotiate a new contract for the union.

Moran reached out to “every Syracuse police officer, all the way up through captain,” he said. In October 2020, he cruised to victory over Piedmonte with nearly 60 percent of the vote. “The membership clearly believed in me,” he said.

Moran is far from the first controversial officer to lead a police union. In recent years, law enforcement officers in several American cities — including Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Minneapolis — have elected union presidents who had previously faced accusations of misconduct, ranging from excessive force to filing false reports.

Those kinds of officers may gravitate toward union leadership, according to Hogan, the former prosecutor. And when officers feel “under attack” from public criticism and distrust, they may elect the “toughest, meanest, baddest SOB that they can find” to fight on their behalf.

This spring, SPD officer Michael Jensen and Lieutenant Michael Hoosock of the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office died in a shootout in the Syracuse suburb of Salina. Moran served as the primary spokesperson for grieving union members and blasted President Joe Biden for visiting central New York so soon after the shooting.

Turo, Moran’s former supervisor, told New York Focus and Central Current that SPD officers are “blessed” to have a representative like Moran, whom he called “one of the most hard-working, honest, and moral guys” he has ever worked with.

The mayor’s office said in a statement that it has “made significant and consistent progress in improving police-community relations” and that Walsh has a “productive working relationship” with Moran and the PBA.

As head of the police union, Moran has negotiated new contracts with the city, raising officer pay and revamping the department’s work schedule. He helped convince Walsh to drop the city’s lawsuit seeking more control over disciplinary proceedings. He weighs in on changes in Syracuse’s law enforcement and criminal justice policies.

And when civilians accuse officers of excessive force, racial profiling, or other abuses, Moran advocates for them; in public and in internal disciplinary proceedings, he defends officers from complaints like the ones lodged against him during his years on patrol.

Yvonne Griffin, a local activist with Citizen Action of New York, said she’s not surprised that the PBA elected someone with Moran’s track record.

“That means that they can go ahead and keep putting their hands on us and getting backed up by the president,” she said. “The Syracuse Police Department officers will never vote him out.”

Nathan Porceng is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared in Balls & Strikes, Grist, The Daily Beast, and more. Nathan grew up in Central New York and spent five years as a submarine officer in the… more
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