NEW YORK — A Wall Street financial worker says New York City police officers responding to a noisy domestic dispute in 2004 sodomized him with a baton, allegations that recall the more notorious cases of a Brooklyn tattoo parlor employee in 2008 and Haitian immigrant Abner Louima a decade earlier.
Those past accusations grabbed headlines and raise concerns about excessive force, but Ralph Johnson’s civil case has unfolded largely unnoticed in federal court in Manhattan.
Johnson is seeking unspecified damages from the city and the New York Police Department at his ongoing trial. In recent testimony, he told a jury that the officers violated him with a metal baton and sought to cover up the assault.
“When I was face down … my legs were held and I felt a sharp jabbing pain into my rectum,” Johnson testified.
A doctor who examined Johnson testified that he saw abrasions and oozing blood that were “consistent with what he said happened to him.”
Johnson’s ex-girlfriend also has taken the witness stand. She said that after officers hauled him off in handcuffs, one made a curious query about their Bronx apartment: “He asked me if there was any reason a video camera would be set up (there).”
There was no video. But Johnson’s lawyers have introduced as evidence a pair of Johnson’s jeans with a hole torn through the seat and lab results confirming his DNA was on a skinny, retractable police baton — the same type of instrument central to the 2008 Brooklyn case involving Michael Mineo.
Mineo said he was assaulted during his arrest on a subway platform. The allegations resulted in news conferences arranged by his lawyers, criminal charges against three patrolmen and comparisons to Louima, whose attack by a broomstick-wielding officer in a police station bathroom in 1997 ranks among the worst scandals in NYPD history.
The officers in the Mineo case were acquitted, but he has pursued a lawsuit against one in a civil case now on trial in Brooklyn.
The largest settlement ever in a police brutality case in New York resulted in 2001 when the city and police union agreed to pay $8.7 million to resolve a lawsuit Louima brought for the severe internal injuries he suffered. One officer is serving 30 years for the attack, while another served a five-year term for perjury.
By contrast, Johnson’s case was obscured partly because of his reluctance to go public with his allegations. He also had to beat what he says were trumped-up criminal charges stemming from the encounter.
The city and the NYPD have defended the officers, claiming the girlfriend was in distress and Johnson was uncooperative. They also cite a taped interview with NYPD internal affairs in which Johnson says he wasn’t sure how he was injured.
Johnson has conceded he can’t identify the officer who allegedly used the baton on him. In his opening statement, city attorney Sumit Sud accused the plaintiff of trying “to cast an illusion on the facts of this case.”
The lawyer argued that Johnson’s internal injuries were so minor that they could have been caused by constipation. The tear in the jeans also was misleading, he said.
“He was wearing underwear and, low and behold, the underwear has no hole in it,” he said.
An NYPD sergeant who took the stand briefly last week resumed testimony Monday, saying he punched Johnson in the face twice at one point when he thought he was going to reach for a glass object he could use as a weapon.
U.S. District Judge Kevin P. Castel seemed to be urging a settlement Monday when, with the jury out of the room, he predicted that the panel’s verdict might lead the losing side to conclude it made a “serious miscalculation.” He also said the case had legal issues that were complex enough to ensure appeals and continued litigation.
Johnson, 40, told jurors that he’s employed at a financial consulting firm and is a partner in precious metals venture. He was working at an investment banking firm in the summer of 2004 when a night out drinking with his live-in girlfriend spiraled out of control.
The girlfriend, Alison Bongo, blew up because he spoke to another woman at a Manhattan nightspot. Once back at their apartment, the argument escalated. She confronted with a bank statement with an unexplained charge for a hotel room.
“I tried to talk to him about it and he wouldn’t listen,” she said.
Even when she began throwing things around and breaking windows, she said, he sat silent.
“It made me even angrier,” she said.
She said he finally responded by carrying her to the doorstep and locking her out. She banged on the door and yelled at the top of her lungs.
That’s when the 911 calls from neighbors began — six in all. “A woman is screaming like crazy,” one caller said.
Bongo testified that about a half dozen officers showed up shortly after midnight on Aug. 27. She told the officers she wanted to get some clothes and leave, and offered her keys for them to let themselves in.
She testified that the officers had trouble unlocking the door, and decided to break it down. Johnson said he was sitting on a couch, clueless about the commotion outside, when they burst in.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I just froze.”
He continued: “They were kicking and punching me. They threw me on the ground, face first.” After feeling the pain in his rectum, he said he “screamed out” for his girlfriend before being dragged out of the home.
The officers tell a different story: They say Johnson knew they were outside but refused to let them in. He also ignored repeated orders to show his hands and stand, and resisted when they tried to pull him up, they say. The retractable baton was used only to pry his arms into position to be handcuffed, the officers say.
At the police station, Johnson told an officer that he had been assaulted and asked for medical attention. He claimed he recanted on the internal affairs tape because of investigators’ intimidation.
He said one warned him “that the last time this was true was Abner Louima and you’re not Louima.” Also, “We’re going to prosecute you for a felony if you’re lying.”
Johnson said he feared police “would put me on the news. They would contact my employer and all my clients. They would interview family and friends.”
Bongo refused to press domestic violence charges against Johnson, but prosecutors still pursued a misdemeanor count of resisting arrest. He said he rejected a plea deal that would have required him sign a statement saying “there was no brutality or sodomy.” He was acquitted at trial.
At the current trial, Bongo coolly recounted how the arrest was the beginning of the end for the couple.
“Do you have any interest in testifying on behalf of Mr. Johnson or helping Mr. Johnson?” his lawyer asked.
“No,” she replied, without hesitation.
The ex-girlfriend testified she didn’t see the arrest because police had her sequestered in a bedroom. But she claimed she was coerced into falsely signing a statement saying, “I was scared and that I was going to get hurt” that night.
In truth, she said her ex was never violent toward her. If he had been, “I would have left.”