NYPD Detectives have been known to joke that one of their best resources when it comes to solving crimes is that the people who commit them are often stupid. That reality helped clear up some of the ambiguity that initially existed in the confrontation in Washington Heights Jan. 8 in which two cops were forced into a street fight with two men who had been bothering people near the 168th St. subway station that later spread to include officers in plainclothes.
What got everybody’s attention was a portion of a bystander’s video of the incident that showed one of the brawlers, Aaron Grissom, on the ground while one of the cops hit him with his baton and others who had intervened joined in.
Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch decried a “rush to judgment,” saying, “What the video doesn’t show is that these perps—one of whom has been previously arrested for assaulting a police officer—threw a haymaker at the cops once they got above ground, necessitating the use of force to bring them into custody.”
Anyone who watches football or hockey knows that there are times when a video replay of a player throwing a punch will show bad behavior by his adversary before the referee was looking.
The first clue something like that happened here came when the man who shot the video, a social worker named Michael Gonzalez, told the New York Post that the officers had previously politely told Mr. Grissom and Sidney Williams that they couldn’t continue loitering near the station, after having been alerted that the pair had been bothering people.
The two men responded by cursing at the cops, he said, then followed them, until “the two individuals actually lunged at the officers.”
It was at that point, Mr. Gonzalez said, that he began videotaping “and you start seeing the cops being aggressive, when they were just defending themselves.”
The video showed both officers at one point swinging their batons at Mr. Williams, but without any sound to indicate what was being said. The video then showed Mr. Grissom running at one of the cops and the officer briefly retreating. He then confronted Mr. Grissom, they wound up near a parked SUV, and police reinforcements arrived. While the video showed Mr. Grissom on the ground and officers swinging at him, it was not clear whether they had him under control or were using force to subdue him so he could be cuffed.
But a clue that Mr. Gonzalez’s account, buttressed by a point on the video in which his aunt said in Spanish of Mr. Grissom and Mr. Williams, “They flew at the police, those two troublemakers,” more accurately reflected the entire incident than what his cellphone camera had captured emerged when the PBA located a video that Mr. Williams posted on Facebook last year.
In it, Mr. Williams looked straight into the camera and basically stated that he provoked confrontations with cops to generate lawsuits and collect easy settlements. “Every case I got, I beat,” he said. He ticked off four police precincts by their numbers and said, “Yeah, they know me. They don’t like me, but they can’t touch me. 'Cause they get hurt, and I get paid. I got three lawsuits, working on number four.”
Displaying a clenched fist, he crowed, “These hands, these hands work.”
Anyone looking at that bit of bragging would have a hard time crediting anything Mr. Williams said about the incident, and Mr. Grissom also has an extensive arrest record.
So then why was Mayor de Blasio so intent on trying to appear even-handed when he was asked about the incident? Saying that he had seen Mr. Gonzalez’s video, he told reporters it was his understanding “the individuals involved were creating a real problem for neighborhood residents.” He added that anyone told by a cop they were going to be arrested had a duty to comply rather than resisting. “But that being said, the images I saw in that video are really troubling and we need to know a lot more.”
It’s likely that Mr. de Blasio at the time was unaware of the video Mr. Williams had made glorying in his self-image as someone willing to fight cops to manufacture grounds for lawsuits. But just a glimpse of Mr. Grissom running at one of the cops in a threatening fashion should have been enough for the Mayor to realize that officers at the scene had good reason not to handle him with kid gloves until he was under control and cuffed.
So why make that “really troubling” comment that put the onus on cops who had been responding to a complaint about the behavior of two men who apparently previously established themselves as nuisances in the neighborhood?
It’s that kind of reflexive action, at a time when he shouldn’t have implied the officers didn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt until all the facts emerged, that explains why Mr. de Blasio’s relationship with his own cops is an uneasy one.