CORONA, Queens — Many New Yorkers erroneously think that the practice of stop, question and frisk has ended in the city under the de Blasio Administration, it has not.
Instead, it has significantly decreased in frequency in the last two and a half years, and remains an effective tool in fighting crime and protecting citizens, according to the police commissioner.
However, one citizen says that police in a precinct here have gone way too far when it comes to him.
Johnathan Peña, 20, says that officers violated the law, as well as their own code of conduct, and he has surveillance video to prove it.
“Completely all the way down,” said Peña, describing where his jeans ended up in a stop, question and frisk scenario. It happened next to the landmark Lemon Ice King of Corona stand on 108th Street during the last week of May.
“He drops my pants all the way to my ankles,” Peña said, referring to one of two plainclothes police officers who stopped and frisked him.
The incident was recorded on surveillance video from a shop across the street. The video is somewhat grainy due to the distance from which it was recorded. A digitally expanded view of the video, though, shows the exposed forearm of one of the officers. Below that is more exposed skin. That skin is apparently Peña’s thighs. He said they’re exposed in the video because his pants are down.
The video shows the other of the two officers crouch down next to Peña seconds before Peña’s thighs are visible. He said that that’s when the officer removed his pants.
He said that it’s been part of a pattern of harassment by local officers for the better part of the last two years. During that time, he said, he’s been arrested multiple times by mostly the same officers, but all but the most recent charges have been dropped in court.
Still, he says,he’s regularly followed by the local officers. In fact, when he arrived by car for his interview with PIX11 News on Wednesday, the same plainclothes cops who stopped and frisked him in the video were tailing his vehicle, as our camera rolled. “Those are them!” Peña exclaimed, as he walked over to begin talking about what he claims is persistent harassment.
It includes another incident Peña captured on camera — his own camera. The plainclothes officers sat in their cruiser outside of Peña’s home a half hour after the pantsing incident and recorded smartphone video of him on his front stoop.
Peña recorded them back with his own smartphone because, he said, he had no choice. He said it’s one of the few ways he could try to prove harassment. It has sent him to Rikers Island, he explained, for days at a time each time he gets arrested, even though the charges eventually get dropped.
Each time he’d been behind bars, he told PIX11 News, “was the worst time of my life.”
“It wasn’t pleasant at all,” he continued, adding that while he was held there, “things I don’t want to talk about” happened to him.
He ended up hiring a private investigator and an attorney, having felt that he had to take some sort of action.
“I’ve looked into his history,” said Peña’s investigator, Manuel Gomez. “He has been arrested four times,” and every charge dropped, Gomez said. “The kid is innocent. All they do is harass him and harass him. And I have video.”
“It keeps going and going,” said Peña’s lawyer, John Scola. “Hopefully, [police] will… see they need to stop arresting this kid.”
PIX11 consulted a former federal prosecutor and practicing civil attorney regarding the situation. Andrew Maloney did not see the video of the police encounter with Peña, but as a former member of law enforcement, he’s very familiar with proper police detainment procedure.
He said that most officers comply with procedure as a method of keeping themselves and the public they serve safe. As for a case where officers might remove someone’s clothing, which is essentially a strip search in public, Maloney said that a protocol is required to be followed.
“You can stop someone and frisk them,” he said, adding that “police are entitled to protect themselves.”
That frisking, Maloney said, is a clothing pat down to check for weapons or contraband on someone that an officer has reason to suspect.
“They’re not allowed to go beyond that” without a warrant or other legal clearance, said Maloney. “I don’t see any circumstances that would have [an officer cause] someone drop their pants in the street.”
For their part, at least three different detectives with the NYPD office of the deputy commissioner for public information viewed the surveillance video and said they could not see that Peña’s pants were removed by responding officers.
They did say, though, that Peña was arrested for a false report of armed men at his home less than an hour after his pants removal claim in late May. He was also arrested for DUI this week.
He said that, like all previous charges against him on his adult record, these will end up being dropped as well, and that they’re part of a continuing pattern of harassment by police.
Ultimately, his complaint of harassment by way of public strip search will be decided in a court of law.
Peña’s attorney has filed the initial paperwork for a lawsuit against the NYPD.