The New York Times

June 16, 2000

Black Officers Win Lawsuit Over Move to Louima Precinct

A fter Abner Louima was sodomized at a police station house in Brooklyn in 1997, the Police Department, sensitive to community anger in the racially charged case, decided to transfer 24 black officers into the precinct to diversify it.

But yesterday, a jury found that the transfers themselves were discriminatory. As a result, the 24 officers, who had sued the department over the transfers in Federal District Court in Manhattan, were awarded $50,000 each by the jury.

The lawsuit was brought by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, and during the trial, Police Commissioner Howard Safir testified in defense of his decision to transfer the officers.

According to federal law, Mr. Safir has the right to make transfers based on emergency or operational need, an issue that was central to the trial. At the trial, James Lemonedes, senior counsel for the New York City law department, argued that after the assault on Mr. Louima, Mr. Safir faced the potential of a civil disturbance on the scale of the one in Los Angeles in which blacks rioted after four white police officers were acquitted of beating a black motorist, Rodney King.

To prevent such a crisis, Mr. Safir ordered the transfers because they satisfied the community's desire for a more integrated precinct, Mr. Lemonedes said. The officers were transferred from surrounding precincts and were allowed to retain their ranks and salary, he said, in an effort to minimize disruption to their lives.

But Gregory Longworth, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, argued that there was no operational need for the transfers, which he said were based on race and therefore were unconstitutional. As well, he said, the transferred officers entered a hostile environment at the 70th Precinct, where remaining officers viewed them as potential spies for the department's Internal Affairs Bureau, which investigates police corruption.

The jury found that the transfers were discriminatory and unconstitutional, and ruled that the city should pay compensatory damages of $50,000 each to the 22 police officers and 2 sergeants who were transferred.

Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said that the verdict showed that the Police Department could no longer uproot an officer based on race.

"These were people who had roots in the community and it disrupts their lives and it disrupts their careers," he said, adding, "You cannot get better community relations if you summarily transfer people in and out of commands."

The city will review all its options, from appealing the jury's verdict to demanding a new trial, Mr. Lemonedes said.