A federal judge lambasted the NYPD for accepting repeated denials from a detective accused of misconduct and city lawyers for standing behind flimsy internal police investigations.
Judge Raymond Dearie said in a sharply worded decision that 31 complaints against Brooklyn narcotics Detective Orlen Zambrano, who is being sued for excessive force against a drug suspect, never got the hard look they deserved.
“The investigations in these cases, fairly characterized, were at best modest — and no genuine factfinding occurred,” Dearie said. “The record further reveals that investigators routinely forgo any classic factfinding, even when there is clear corroborating evidence, preferring instead to affix the unsubstantiated label once the accused officer denies the conduct in question.”
The judge was responding to a motion made on behalf of suspect Matthew Jenkins, arguing that the city should have been aware that Zambrano was prone to misconduct given the history of complaints against him. The city’s Law Department contended that Jenkins was wrong to accuse the city of turning a blind eye to police misconduct since not one excessive force complaint against Zambrano had been substantiated.
“Apparently,” Dearie said, “unless an officer is caught red-handed or his conduct is undeniable for whatever reason, the NYPD and the city simply choose to regard the allegation as a nonevent … no matter the frequency or similarities in the complaint.”
The NYPD declined to comment on Dearie’s finding because of pending litigation. The lawsuit is headed to trial in September.
A spokesman for the Law Department, which is defending Zambrano and the city in the case, had no comment on Dearie’s finding.
Section 50-a of New York’s Civil Rights Law prohibits disclosure of a police officer’s disciplinary history unless ordered by a judge. Dearie laid out much of Zambrano’s history in his June 4 decision.
The judge said Zambrano was the subject of 30 other complaints, 15 of which involved allegations of excessive force, and noted that the NYPD disciplined Zambrano once, and that was for failing to make a proper memo book entry.
Zambrano was with the NYPD for 10 years. He resigned in 2015 on a three-quarters disability pension after tearing a ligament in his leg while running after someone, and then moved to Colombia. It was not clear where he now lives, and he could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit centers on the Oct. 13, 2012, arrest of Jenkins for selling $40 worth of crack to an undercover officer in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Zambrano said as Jenkins was being taken into custody he realized the suspect had pulled a bag from his anus and was trying to swallow it. Zambrano said he threw Jenkins, then 51, to the ground, bruising the suspect’s face. Police said Jenkins swallowed a bag of crack and was taken to Woodhull Medical Center for examination.
Jenkins said he was beaten for no reason, and wound up with bleeding on the brain and that medical records showed he didn’t swallow drugs.
The Internal Affairs Bureau, Dearie noted, investigated Jenkins’ claim, then cleared Zambrano after interviewing his sergeant, who later admitted to Jenkins’ lawyer Michael Lumer that he didn’t review ’ medical records.
Lumer said Dearie’s decision “confirms the NYPD’s institutional refusal to supervise and discipline its officers, particularly the repeat offenders who have a track record of serious misconduct.”
“As the ruling makes clear, there is no reason to believe the NYPD is capable of reforming itself, or that it wants to,” Lumer said. “The reality is that real change isn’t possible unless it is forced on the NYPD through outside oversight.”
The NYPD noted that it is putting in place a number of proposals made by a panel of three former prosecutors last year to study the department’s disciplinary procedures.
NYPD spokeswoman Sgt. Mary O’Donnell said the panel “also found that the NYPD disciplinary process has generally produced fair results.”
The complaints against Zambrano involved investigations by Internal Affairs and the Civilian Complaint Review Board, plus nine lawsuits. Two of the lawsuits, including Jenkins’, are pending. More than $280,000 has been paid in cases where settlements were reached.
In each of the lawsuits, other officers are named with Zambrano, and it is not always clear what role he is alleged to have played.