The Chief

November 26, 1999

P.D. Tries Cop in Shooting of Squeegee Man

'Double Jeopardy' or Department Insisting on Higher Standard?

By William Van Auken

Police Officer Michael W. Meyer was tried a second time last week for the off-duty shooting of a squeegee man. In the first trail, held in criminal court, he was found not guilty, warding off a potential 25-year jail sentence. In the second proceeding, the issue is whether he can keep his job as a cop.

A Clash of Principles

Defense attorneys and the officer's union denounced the trial as a case of "double jeopardy," demonstrating that cops become "second-class citizens" once accused of any wrongdoing.

The Department Advocate's Office, NYPD's internal prosecutorial arm, countered that, whatever his criminal liability, Officer Meyer's behavior indicated he is unfit to carry a gun and badge. "He has to answer to us on a higher standard," NYPD prosecutor Sgt. Richard Mulvaney told the court.

Unlike a criminal trial, where the prosecution must prove its case "beyond a reasonable doubt" to win a guilty verdict, the standard of proof in NYPD administrative proceedings is lower. Guilt or innocence is established based on a "preponderance of evidence," meaning whichever conclusion the facts make most likely.

The charges against Officer Meyer, a nine-year veteran of the NYPD, stem from his June 14, 1998 confrontation with Antoine Reid. He encountered the squeegee man after leaving a Yankee game, driving down 138th St. in the South Bronx toward the Major Deegan Expressway and his Long Island home. In the car with him were his girlfriend and her six-year-old son.

Differ on Shooting

The most riveting testimony in the Trial Room proceeding was provided by Officer Meyer and Mr. Reid, who suffered the loss of his spleen and damage to his stomach and liver as the result of the single shot fired into his chest. The two gave diametrically opposed accounts of the physical struggle that ended with the shooting.

Mr. Reid testified that after he threw soap and water on Officer Meyer's windshield, the cop jumped out of his vehicle in a rage, cursing, swinging at him and pushing him into the side of an adjacent car.

"I did nothing to him; I was just trying to get away from that man," Mr. Reid, 38, said. He said he was backed against the car, with his hands in the air, when Officer Meyer shot him.

According to Officer Meyer's testimony, Mr. Reid "exploded and started screaming obscenities at me" as soon as he told him, "No, buddy" and tried to wave him away from his windshield.

"He screamed 'F--- you; you owe me a f---ing buck,'" he said. "He was very agitated.

"I understood I had a little bit of a situation on my hands here," said Officer Meyer. He said he got out of his vehicle and confronted Mr. Reid after concluding that "the best thing for me to do is to get him away from the car."

Both on direct questioning by his own attorney and under cross-examination by Sergeant Mulvaney, Officer Reid insisted that he found himself in "a very violent struggle" with Mr. Reid from the moment he left his vehicle.

The cop claimed that he fired his weapon in self-defense, using deadly force to counter what he perceived as the threat of deadly force. "I though the guy was either going to kill me or beat me up very seriously," he said. Officer Meyer also indicated that while grappling with him, Mr. Reid was inching closer to his gun.

At one point, Mr. Richman asked his client to descend from the witness stand and recreate what he said was his physical tussle with Mr. Reid. The red-faced attorney imitated the squeegee man, shouting obscenities and pushing the somewhat bewildered-looking Police Officer across the Trial Room floor.

'David' Had an Equalizer

Afterwards Mr. Richman commented on the 'fear" he had sensed even in this re-enactment, inviting the court to consider what Office Meyer felt grappling with an individual five inches taller than he. "It was virtually like David and Goliath," he quipped.

Mr. Reid acknowledged that he is a recovering crack addict and alcoholic with a record of 20 arrests. To support its characterization of him as a violent individual, the defense presented two witnesses who claimed that he had accosted them at the same intersection.

The first witness was William Farrell, a broker with Paine Webber. He called Mr. Richman's office and volunteered to testify after seeing a picture of Mr. Reid published in the Nov. 16 issue of The New York Times.

Mr. Farrell said that he was driving his children to a Disney parade in Manhattan on June 14, 1997, a year to the day before the confrontation with Officer Meyer, when Mr. Reid approached his car on the same corner of 138th Street.

After he tried to get rid of him by turning on his wipers and honking his horn, he said, Mr. Reid attempted to reach in the car, screaming, "I'm going to kill you."

Feared for His Life

"I was scared. I was angry and I was very upset," he said. "I thought I would have to get out and push him away from the car, or he was going to kill me."

A postal worker, Joseph Palau, was the second witness who said he was involved in a confrontation with Mr. Reid, this one just a week before the shooting. "He attempted to wash my windshield and I told him no," he recalled. "He flew into a rage," he said, attempting to hit him with his squeegee. Mr. Palau said he "blew the light," pulling into heavy traffic for fear that "he was trying to steal my U.S. Postal Service placard."

The postal worker said that when he heard a radio report about the Meyer shooting, he called the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association to tell them of his own experience, but that the union never called him back.

On cross-examination, Officer Meyer acknowledged that he suffered no bruises or cuts in his confrontation with Mr. Reid. He complained only of "sore muscles the next day" and a swelling of his lip that he said was caused by the squeegee brushing against his face.

In his summation, Mr. Richman described Mr. Reid as "a brute of a man filled with hatred and anger." He suggested that since the shooting he had "had his life turned around, possibly as a result of this incident." His client, meanwhile, had seen himself turned from "a good cop" into "a person thought of as a criminal."

The shooting, he argued, was the result of Mr. Reid attempting to overpower the cop, who had no way of escaping.

The defense attorney seized upon a remark made by Sergeant Mulvaney early in the trial that Mr. Reid "was offering a service of a squeegee." The description prompted a statement from Police Commissioner Howard Safir declaring that squeegee men "are not providing a service and will not be tolerated."

"Terrorism is not a service; extortion is not a service," said Mr. Richman. "This aggressiveness and fear of paying tolls on every corner has become a terrible thing in our city."

'Chose to Pack Gun'

Sergeant Mulvaney disputed the portrayal of Officer Meyer as a man unable to extricate himself from a situation not of his making, "He woke up in the morning, strapped a gun on and put a shield in his pocket," he said. "He used his discretion when he put a gun in his pants and went to a Yankees game."

The prosecutor cited Officer Meyer's testimony in a departmental interview in which he said that he had dealt with squeegee men in Brooklyn while working at the 75th Precinct by merely showing them his shield. "That's how you defuse the situation," the Sergeant said. The department, he said, tells cops that they have to "walk away" from such confrontations.

Acknowledging that squeegee men are a nuisance, Sergeant Mulvaney added, "But the policy is not to shoot these individuals for no reason."

Officer Meyer, he said, "wanted to show who's boss. He was so enraged he took it upon himself to do his own justice. But that's not the justice of this Police Department."

PBA: Telling Him to Run

PBA President Patrick J. Lynch, who attended the final day of the trial with a half-dozen other members of the union's executive board, said the proceedings amounted to "double jeopardy," with Officer Meyer being retried for crimes of which he had already been found not guilty in criminal court.

"The prosecution basically said that Police Officers should turn and run when faced with these kinds of situations," said Mr. Lynch. "As someone who lives in this city, I can tell you when my family needs help, I don't want a Police Officer to turn and run. I want him to help."

Pointing to the prosecution's description of the squeegee man having provided a "service," Mr. Lynch said, "This isn't a service; it's a menace to society, and it's our job as Police Officers not to let it go on."

The PBA leader echoed the statements of defense attorneys that the trial relegated cops to the status of second-class citizens. "Don't we have the same rights as a citizen to protect our families?" he asked.

A frequent critic of the department for alleged incidents of police brutality and racism, Lieut. Eric Adams, president of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, dismissed the charges of the PBA and the defense attorneys about "double jeopardy."

'Shouldn't Be Aggressors'

"The people of this city have the right to know if he has acted according to the rules of the department," he said. All public employees, he said, face similar requirements. "I don't believe a police officer should be the aggressor." Lieutenant Adams said, adding that "the men and women of the NYPD have received more than their fair share of justice."

The off-duty nature of the shooting raised a number of legal questions that Deputy Commissioner for Trials Rae D. Koshetz must address in a decision expected by the beginning of next year. The charges mirror the original criminal indictment but include an additional eight specifications charging violations of the Patrol Guide that were added after officer Meyer's acquittal.

Because of the mix of charges, Ms. Koshetz questioned whether Officer Meyer was acting as a private citizen or a Police Officers when he shot Antoine Reid. He testified he did not intend to arrest Mr. Reid when he got out of his vehicle, but that he immediately identified himself as a Police Officer when he tried to get him away from the car.

Different Rules Apply

As a Police Officer, use of physical force against a civilian is justifiable only in the context of an arrest. While in a civilian capacity, there is a "duty to retreat" from a physical confrontation before it escalates, an on-duty cop carrying out enforcement action is under no such obligation.

Ms. Koshetz added that if she found Officer Meyer guilty on any of the charges, she would review his personnel record before recommending a penalty.

A recipient of the NYPD Medal of Valor who said he has participated in over 1,000 arrests during his nine-year career as a cop, Officer Meyer had also been taken off patrol in Brooklyn's 75th Precinct after being cited in six civilian complaints alleging excessive force or abuse of authority. The officer's attorneys said that all but one of the complaints - a charge that he had failed to sign a summons - were found unsubstantiated.