Lawless lawmen are color blind during a rampage.
Upstate New Yorker Robert Leone, a white man whose mug shot looks like he battled King Kong and lost, is suing Pennsylvanian state police for beating him so badly after a March 2010 bust that one officer broke his hand while allegedly using Leone’s head as a punching bag. The shocking episode was captured on police video and went viral last month, renewing interest in the case.
It brought to mind the agonizing ordeal of a Brooklyn cop-violence victim, whose incident of mistaken identity is still hard to top, although more than 25 years have passed since the unprovoked encounter gripped the nation, yielding one of the largest law enforcement brutality settlements of all time, while launching the Mollen Commission’s massive 1992 city probe into police corruption.
It’s the stuff of nightmares.
Bensonhurst resident Gerard Papa — founder of Flames youth basketball, and a successful Wall Street attorney at the time — was driving with a friend along Bayview Avenue in Coney Island one frigid March night in 1986 when he was cornered by a pair of screeching, unmarked cars. Five men in civilian clothes leapt out with guns drawn, and screamed at the stunned men to exit their vehicle, spraying them with a hail of bullets before they had a chance to respond.
Dumb-founded and bleeding profusely they ducked under the dashboard, but their assailants — who still didn’t identify themselves, or state their motive — dragged the men out into the dark, lamp-lit street and pummeled them to within an inch of their lives. Papa sustained the brunt of the vicious attack, suffering extensive brain damage, and irreparable injuries to his knees, back, and shoulders. He was forced to leave his job, and underwent two surgeries, plus years of grueling rehabilitation that failed to recoup all of his lost skills.
The perpetrators — undercover cops from the 60th Precinct who mistook the victims for robbery suspects — were anything but the Finest, claims Papa.
“I thought they were hoodlums — turned out they were,” says the man who was imprisoned on trumped-up attempted murder charges which were later dismissed.
His criminal case against the officers fizzled out, too. No disciplinary action was brought against them, though one cop was promoted to detective while others continued to work at the Coney Island precinct for years to come, he states.
His harrowing experience is a far cry from the flurry of media attention, press conferences, investigations, and lawsuits that accompany even a whiff of alleged police-brutality today.
“There was no effective monitoring of cops at that time,” says Papa, who was awarded more than $70 million in a civil trial eight years after the assault.
The brutal brush with what he calls cop criminality still baffles him.
“My biggest reaction to the whole incident has always been just sadness,” he says. “I didn’t believe cops were capable of this.”
Somehow Papa remains incredibly objective towards cop-civilian altercations — even giving the Finest the benefit of the doubt.
“I know what it’s like to be trapped in a car being shot at,” he says. “But it’s best not to judge when these things arise because they can be good and bad on both sides — you just don’t know.”
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