February 2, 2015 4:00 pm

Editorial: Justice-System Travesties


Evidence that bad things run in threes was produced by a trio of dubious decisions affecting the justice system that came to light last week.

All had a degree of outrageousness to them, but arguably the most-extreme one involved the $5,000 check the city issued to a man who menaced cops with a machete five years ago, was shot in the leg by one of them and rolled the dice by filing a $3-million lawsuit.

The explanation given by the Law Department was that it saved the city money that would otherwise have been spent on litigating the case. That’s undoubtedly true, but in this case principle should have taken priority over principal: when a cop has acted appropriately in using deadly force—especially when the wrongdoer was wounded but not fatally—making a nuisance settlement undermines officers’ confidence that the city will properly defend them.

After Police Commissioner Bill Bratton erupted upon learning of the payout, Mayor de Blasio quickly concurred with him, directing Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter to refuse to settle frivolous lawsuits. He argued that aggressively defending against them may cost more in the short term but is likely to discourage their filing in the long run, since in such cases the lawyers who bring them usually get paid only if they win something for their clients.

The second case involves Bronx Defenders, which provides legal services to indigent criminal defendants, and two of its lawyers who participated in a rap video that advocated the murder of cops in retaliation for the 2006 shooting death of Sean Bell and last summer’s killing in a St. Louis suburb of Michael Brown.

The organization, which relies heavily on city and Federal funding, originally claimed it was unaware of the content of the video, which besides the incendiary rhetoric of the rapper Uncle Murda featured a scene in which a white actor playing a cop had guns pointed at his head by two black men.

Its story collapsed under scrutiny from the Department of Investigation, which concluded that the attorneys, Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli, knew of the content of the video but made no objections to the call for cop-killing. DOI also faulted the group’s executive director, Robin Steinberg, for not asking questions about the video, which was filmed partly in the office of Bronx Defenders, noting that Uncle Murda had been behind similar videos in the past.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch has called for the group’s city funding, which totaled $41 million over the past two fiscal years, to be discontinued. Given the valuable purpose Bronx Defenders plays in the criminal-justice system, that seems too extreme. But Mayor de Blasio, who condemned the video and has threatened legal and contractual actions unless the organization responds appropriately, should insist that Mr. Rao, Mr. Napoli and Ms. Steinberg all be fired as a condition of retaining all or part of its city funding.

Finally, there is the case of a Police Officer who is alleged to have brutally assaulted a transit worker yet was charged with a misdemeanor by the Bronx District Attorney’s Office even though a change in the law a dozen years ago made such assaults felonies punishable by up to seven years in prison.

The cop, Mirjan Lolja, apparently steamed upon being told that the next train wouldn’t arrive at the Tremont Ave. station for another 20 minutes, according to the charge against him jumped on rookie Conductor Fatima Futa’s back, “wrapped his upper arm around [her] neck,” tackled her and then pulled her hair.

Ms. Futa’s union, Transport Workers Union Local 100, ripped into the DA’s decision to hit Officer Lolja with a lesser charge, with President John Samuelsen contending that if he wasn’t a cop, “he’d be rotting in a jail cell on Rikers Island.”

The DA’s Office has defended the charge it brought, noting that if convicted, Mr. Lolja could still face a year in prison. The problem with that explanation is that given his lack of a criminal record, he is unlikely to be facing more than a couple of months behind bars, if that. And frankly, if anyone deserves to get the full weight of the felony charge brought against him, it’s someone who carries a badge and gun. That’s especially true because he fled the scene and turned himself in only after the Daily News published a photo of him caught on video with a grin on his face as he exited the station.

The good news is that this egregious loss of control is certain to cost Officer Lolja his job. But the Bronx DA’s Office, which has criminalized ticket-fixing in cases where officers engaged in it as favors rather than in return for cash or other considerations, has moved from being too tough on a situation that should have been dealt with through internal NYPD discipline to being too lenient in this case and sending a terrible message to transit workers, the police and the public in general.

As Local 100 Division Chair Joe Costales told this newspaper’s Sarah Dorsey, “I think an off-duty cop should be held to higher standards.”