Alleged police misconduct cost Yonkers, N.Y., millions. The complaints kept coming
In 2012, Dana Cardile says she was at her then-boyfriend's house in Yonkers, N.Y. They were arguing, and he called the police. It was around 9 p.m. A group of officers arrived and told Cardile to show them her driver's license.
She alleged later in a lawsuit that on the way to retrieve her license from her car, she was violently assaulted by four male officers — pushed to the ground, kicked, grabbed by her throat and lifted to her feet, and repeatedly thrown against the trunk of her car. Cardile claimed that what happened was unprovoked. Officers took her to a holding cell, and after she requested medical care, according to her lawsuit, the police took her to a Yonkers hospital several hours later. There, she was treated for a fractured hand and injuries to her arm and shoulder.
"The uniform makes them feel like 'we can do what we want, and you sit there and shut up,'" says Cardile, who was 37 at the time of the incident.
In her federal civil rights lawsuit, filed two years after the incident, Cardile alleged that the officers used unreasonable and excessive force. The city of Yonkers denied wrongdoing — but settled with Cardile for $50,000.
Civil suits like this are often the only recourse citizens have for holding police officers accountable, and for some people the only way to obtain any sense of justice.
Yonkers is a small city just north of New York City. The Yonkers Police Department does not look like the community it serves. Yonkers is 19% Black and 40% Latino. But the police force of about 600 officers is nearly 75% white, according to the department.
NPR obtained records of payouts by the city of Yonkers for incidents of alleged police misconduct that took place between 2007 and 2020. When the city of Yonkers settled cases, it was made clear that the city and the officers involved in the lawsuits denied any wrongdoing.
We focused on this period because the incidents that resulted in payouts occurred as the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating the Yonkers Police Department and recommending areas for reform.
Even with the extra scrutiny from the Justice Department, the payouts by the city over alleged misconduct did not seem to have signaled that there were deeper systemic issues within the police department. Over the years, the number of incidents that resulted in a payout fluctuated: They peaked at 17 in 2012, dropped to a low of two in 2016, and bumped back up to eight in 2018.
Among our findings:
Christina Gilmartin, director of communications for the mayor of Yonkers, says lawsuits are settled for a variety of reasons and stressed that there is no admission of liability.
"Typically," she says, "there is some investigation after a claim is filed. Decisions are made based on the strength of the claim, the assessment of the damages, the anticipated cost of defense."
Settlements are paid for out of general tax revenues, she says, and are approved by the city council.
And according to Frank DiDomizio, public information officer for the Yonkers Police Department, "the Police Department does not play a role in the settlements."
He also noted, in a statement to NPR, that "we are an agency that averages 160,000 calls for service per year." He added that the NPR investigation only identified about 300 officers named in lawsuits over roughly 15 years, a tiny fraction "compared to the total contacts with the public."
"There is no policy ... of using less force."
When the Department of Justice began investigating the Yonkers Police Department in the summer of 2007, it was looking for a pattern of unlawful policing.
The Justice Department found what it called "significant concerns."
Two years into its investigation, it outlined findings in a 26-page letter to the city. It said that the Yonkers police did not have a "comprehensive" policy on the use of force, and that its manual contained little guidance for officers about when and how to use force.
Rather than providing definitions or legal standards of "reasonable" or "justified" force, the DOJ found that the Yonkers Police Department left it up to individual officers to define these terms for themselves. For example, its manual instructed officers to apply force to "appropriate" areas of the body, without giving further explanation. Regarding its policy on "deadly" use of force, the manual did not classify actions such as using an object to strike someone on the head, or putting them in a chokehold, as potentially fatal. The DOJ said the manual's piecemeal approach was "dangerous" and noted that the Yonkers police manual lacked information about how officers might use de-escalation techniques in lieu of force.
"There is no policy, nor even a suggestion, of using less force," the Justice Department concluded.
It outlined key areas of reform for the police department, including a recommended revamp of its use of force policies, and changes in how incidents involving force are reported.
The Justice Department inquiry was prompted by Karen Edmonson, who lives in Yonkers and worked for the Yonkers NAACP at the time. Around 2006, residents were reaching out to her with their stories about police misconduct. She says the first complaint she received was from a man who said he was assaulted by officers, then assaulted again in the waiting area of a Yonkers hospital where they took him for treatment. "I'll never forget that case," Edmonson says. "I was so furious about that."
Edmonson started spreading the word that she was collecting more stories. She opened up "town halls," at places like the public library, where people could come and describe what they experienced with police. "I called it therapy. People were coming and venting; they wanted to be heard. And I was listening," she says.
Eventually, Edmonson collected about 60 complaints of officer misconduct and forwarded those to the DOJ. "My job was to show the pattern," she said. "That was the only way to get the DOJ to come in."
Edmonson said she had hoped the DOJ's intervention would help reform the department and set things right: "My goal was for institutional best practices, to make it stop, and to make it a better police department."
Some reforms did take place. But our investigation found that despite the complaints Edmonson collected and the more than 100 payouts by the city of Yonkers while the Justice Department was providing oversight, incidents of alleged police abuse continued.
From broken bones to missing teeth
In state and federal court documents, plaintiffs claimed they were punched, kicked, tackled, or choked — sometimes as officers used racial slurs. Many alleged they were beaten with officers' batons or guns. Some claimed that officers kneeled on their backs and necks while they were face down on the ground.
One plaintiff alleged that officers put him in the back of a police car after arresting him, sprayed mace directly in his face and shut the doors, leaving him without ventilation. He claimed that police then took him to the parking lot of a local hospital and assaulted him again before bringing him inside for treatment. In a different case, a man alleged that as he was being choked and kicked by police, another officer arrived on the scene, called it a "party," and asked the other officers, "How could y'all start without me?"
In almost half of the 102 cases we reviewed, people said they were hospitalized. Plaintiffs alleged in court documents that they had suffered a range of injuries: broken and fractured bones, head traumas, internal bleeding, loss of consciousness, eyes swollen shut, broken and missing teeth, and wounds that needed to be closed up with stitches or staples. Some claimed they faced repeated surgeries and chronic pain.
Most of the payouts in these cases were relatively small — sometimes as little as $1,500. The largest was a $1.15 million settlement to a woman severely injured by an officer who had responded to a call at a local bar. According to allegations in court records, she suffered a broken jaw, severe bruising to her face and other injuries.
Ray Fitzpatrick, an attorney who represents the city of Yonkers, said that since this large payout in 2017, the city has not seen any incidents involving use of force that are "very, very troubling." But our investigation found that the city paid $268,500 to settle 12 lawsuits alleging excessive use of force that occurred since that payout in 2017. In one, a man alleges that as he was retrieving his driver's license from his car, he was tasered and beaten. He claims he had to be treated for fractures to his face at a Yonkers hospital. While not admitting wrongdoing, the city of Yonkers settled his case for $50,000.
Rewarding repeat offenders
After we had amassed a list of payouts over alleged misconduct, NPR discovered that the names of certain officers appeared over and over again. Ten officers were named in four or more settled cases for incidents that allegedly happened since 2007, and six officers were named in six or more cases.
There may be even more such cases since the court documents we reviewed left many officers unnamed. We counted more than 300 officers who were identified by name. Many others appeared simply as "John Doe."
We found that one officer, Alex Della Donna, was involved in at least nine settlements over alleged misconduct that happened after the DOJ started its investigation. The city has paid out $402,500 for cases that he was involved in. One case is still being litigated, although Della Donna retired at age 45 in late 2021.
NPR made numerous attempts to contact Della Donna, by phone and by email and through the police union, but was unable to reach him.
A plaintiff in one of those cases, who was 15 at the time, stated in her court complaint that police stopped her for driving a stolen vehicle. She alleges that police pointed a weapon at her, opened the driver's side door and pulled her out. She claims she hit the ground face first. She alleges that Della Donna and four other male officers severely beat her, that she suffered a broken nose and several missing teeth, and needed to be hospitalized. In her complaint, she says she heard officers laughing at her missing teeth; then she lost consciousness. She received a $33,000 settlement.
Another woman alleged in a court complaint that Della Donna coerced her to have sex with him at least seven times in an unmarked vehicle while he was on duty, promising her that in exchange he would get her drug charges dropped. In the court complaint, she claimed she was worried the charges could lead her to being deported and losing her children. She claims that she became suicidal. She received a $20,000 settlement.
Della Donna faced a disciplinary hearing 11 months after the suit alleging sexual assault was filed. His supervisors wrote that "his sexual relationship with a criminal defendant exhibited a ... lack of professionalism that reflected unfavorably upon the department." They revoked 30 days of paid leave and ordered him to retake an ethics training course.
In general, officers who were involved in frequent payouts were rarely disciplined, and when they were, their penalties were light.
That wasn't Della Donna's first disciplinary hearing. In another incident, according to department disciplinary records, Della Donna allegedly pinned down a man being held in the city jail. The records say he used his knee on the man's neck, even though the man wasn't resisting. Della Donna's supervisors revoked four days of paid leave.
Despite that disciplinary hearing and several subsequent lawsuits alleging misconduct, Della Donna received 14 departmental awards. In total he received 59 awards throughout the course of his nearly 15 years with the Yonkers Police Department.
This was part of another pattern we discovered: Even as the city of Yonkers was paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars involving complaints against these 10 officers, the Yonkers Police Department was rewarding many of them.
One officer, for example, was promoted to sergeant just three years after the city made the last of four payments in cases in which he was one of the defendants. Three of the four cases resulted in a settlement; the other was a jury verdict. The city paid out more than $417,000 in those cases. From the time of the first lawsuit to the last, the officer received 38 departmental awards.
Another officer, now retired, has been named in six cases — all alleging excessive force. The city has so far paid out more than $130,000 to settle those cases. In response to a request, the city could not provide any disciplinary records for this officer. During the years the city was negotiating the settlements, the officer received eight departmental awards.
Overall, of the 10 officers named at least four times in lawsuits where the city made a payout, seven of them received some kind of department commendation.
The Yonkers Police Department says the awards and any payouts for alleged misconduct are separate matters. "Officers receive departmental awards for specific incidents that they are involved in, exclusive from any previous events," says DiDomizio, the public information officer for the Yonkers Police Department.
He added: "Only the details surrounding a particular event are taken into consideration when reviewing departmental recognitions. Although an Officer may have had an incident(s) in the past that resulted in litigation, it does not preclude them from being recognized for an exemplary job during another incident that is deserving of an award."
"A couple of dollars to shut up?"
Victims who got paid said they still feel that justice wasn't done. What they wanted was for the cops to be held accountable.
The Yonkers Police Department — because of the oversight from the Department of Justice and reforms pushed by former Police Commissioner John Mueller — has made changes.
In 2017, it updated its use of force policy to include de-escalation practices and techniques. It now requires officers to issue verbal warnings, when "practical." And it requires officers to de-escalate a situation if a subject being arrested stops resisting.
Officers must also now wear name tags.
The number of times officers reported using force went down while Mueller was in charge, and the crime rate in Yonkers went down too. Mueller left the force in April of this year.
However, complaints leading to payouts, though up and down over the years, persist.
The department and the city of Yonkers say the settlements are meant to compensate people for harm done. Andrew Quinn, a lawyer for the union representing Yonkers police officers, said that settlement amounts are determined by estimating how much income a person and their dependents will have lost while recovering from injuries.
For some people, the settlements are meaningful, according to Rose Weber, a civil rights lawyer who has represented many plaintiffs in Yonkers. "From the perspective of many of my clients, who are very low-income, what seems like a low settlement to you or me, could be life-changing for them." She recalled one plaintiff who was able to get off the streets and pay rent in an apartment for a year or so after receiving his settlement.
Edmonson, the former NAACP activist who held the public "town halls" that helped get the Justice Department involved in Yonkers, sees it differently.
"People who came and told their stories wanted to see certain officers go to jail. Others wanted to feel heard and feel a sense of some justice," she says. " It's not about getting money. Money won't fix the emotional trauma."
Cardile, the woman who claims she was pushed to the ground and pulled up by the neck at her boyfriend's house, says the $50,000 settlement she received was not entirely satisfying.
"I didn't care about the money," she said. "They were giving me a couple of dollars to shut up? I wanted those officers to lose their jobs, or their pensions."
Without accountability, Cardile said of officers who engage in misconduct, "they're free to do this to somebody else."
METHODOLOGY: HOW WE COMPILED THE DATA
Records of payouts to plaintiffs involving police misconduct are not easily tracked. We asked the city of Yonkers through a public records request for cases it settled. It had to create a list and it identified 140 cases. We independently found 10 other cases. We then narrowed the overall list in the following ways:
— We eliminated cases in which the incident happened before 2007, the year the Justice Department began investigating the Yonkers police.
— We did not count cases where we learned from the city's legal department that payouts took place before a court case was filed.
— We did not count cases where we could not locate court documents in federal or state court databases.
We tried to corroborate as much information as possible — including the specific allegations against officers — in court records.
That winnowed our list from the 140 cases the city said it settled to the 102 cases we analyzed here.
Of the 102 cases, 95 were settlements in which the city paid out money to the plaintiff but admitted no wrongdoing. Seven payouts were jury verdicts in which the city and/or the officer was found liable after the plaintiff had the opportunity to make their case in court.
Among those cases, we counted the allegations asserted in the court complaints; most cases included multiple allegations. The categories of allegations that we cite are derived from those court records, either from the type of violation claimed under the law, or in some instances, from the background facts alleged to support the claim. In some cases, we combined categories that were similar. For example, we combined the separate allegations of assault, battery, and excessive force into one category: assault and/or excessive force. There are more allegations listed in court records that we did not include.
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