Is police reform possible without addressing past misconduct? : Embedded For a long time, the police department in Yonkers, New York had a reputation as overly aggressive, especially when it came to policing the poorer parts of the city. There were lots of stories of "bad apples"-police officers who allegedly roughed people up or planted drugs during random stops and arrests. Eventually, the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in to investigate. Now the Yonkers Police Department says it is transforming. With the help of a progressive police chief, it has adopted new policies and procedures to minimize force and make the police more accountable to the public. As Embedded, in partnership with The Marshall Project, continues its look at police reform in one American city, we confront a question many of those who say they were mistreated by the police have raised: is it enough? For some alleged victims the answer is clear: there can never be real reform until the police have fully accounted for the wrongs of the past.

Changing the Police: Reckoning with the Past

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1109998288/1112629851" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: Just a warning before we get started - this episode has some strong language.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Hey, I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED from NPR.

Why don't we just kind of start from the beginning? It was January 5...

NAIMA YANCEY: It was a Friday.

MCEVERS: ...2007.

YANCEY: Mmm hmm. It was a Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "TRAILRUNNER")

YANCEY: So what happened was...

MCEVERS: Naima Yancey remembers a lot about that day.

YANCEY: It was a Friday and...

MCEVERS: She was 23, had recently finished college, was living with her mom in Yonkers, and her mom had taken in a teenage foster daughter, who Naima was in charge of that day. At one point, the girl ran out the door. And so Naima gets in her car to try to find her, pulls up to a corner where there's a stop sign...

YANCEY: I can clearly see the cop sitting on the hill watching this, you know, stop sign.

MCEVERS: And Naima says she stopped the car and then made a right.

YANCEY: And as soon as I do that, he makes the U-turn. And I'm like, I know he's not about to stop me.

MCEVERS: The cop does stop her. Naima pulls over. The cop asks for her license.

YANCEY: So I said, like, I don't have my license. I was looking for my foster sister. And he was like, well, where is she? I was like, I don't know. She ran away. And then I was like, but I stopped at that stop sign. And I was like, why did you pull me over? He was like, well, I was with you until you called me a liar. And I was like, what? He was like, you didn't stop at that stop sign.

MCEVERS: Then the cop walks back to his car, writes her a couple of tickets - failing to stop, no driver's license - comes back...

YANCEY: He's like, where is your foster sister? Like, do you want to - I was like, well, forget it now. We've been here 10 minutes. Like, she's gone. I don't know where she is.

MCEVERS: So Naima takes the tickets, and then she drives away.

YANCEY: So he was still standing there when I, like, left. I don't know - I think that was the catalyst to what then happened. I think - and this is my opinion. I think he might have felt disrespected that I didn't wait for him to get in the car. And then I kind of also told him, no, I didn't want his help anymore because the time, for me, had passed.

MCEVERS: Police say Naima sped away, that she ran more stop signs on her way home and that the cop tried to pull her over again but she didn't stop. Whichever way it happened, Naima gets home, and she pulls into her driveway.

YANCEY: And he pulls in right behind me. So I'm like, what is going - like, this is weird.

MCEVERS: Naima goes into the house through a door in the garage. And according to a complaint she later filed in civil court and according to her boyfriend at the time, who witnessed what happened, the cop pushes the door she's trying to close and forces his way inside. The cop says in the police report he had ordered Naima to come out, but she didn't, so he, quote, "stopped the door from closing."

YANCEY: And I'm like, what are you doing? You're on private property. You're trespassing. Here comes my criminal justice sociology from two years, and I just graduated. I'm like, you're on private property.

MCEVERS: Naima starts going up some stairs.

YANCEY: I had on an Old Navy collared shirt - I remember that (laughter). So I had an Old Navy collared shirt, and he grabs me by my collar and, like pulls me down the stairs.

MCEVERS: And she says the cop pulls out his asp, which is like an expandable baton, and starts hitting her with it in the arm, in the face, in the side of the head.

YANCEY: He was like, you fucking cunt, bitch. Like that. And I was like, I'm the bitch? You just beat the shit out of a woman.

MCEVERS: The officer in the police report says Naima tried to strike him, and that's why he hit her with his asp. Either way, Naima's put in a police car. She starts kicking it from the inside. And by this point, other cops have shown up. Then her mom gets home from work and pulls up.

YANCEY: So now my mom is, like, parked in front of the house with all of these cop cars. You would have thought Pablo Escobar was there.

NANCY VAZQUEZ: And I looked. She was hysterical. The police beat me. The police beat me. Ma, the police beat me.

MCEVERS: That's Nancy Vazquez, Naima's mother. So Naima is yelling and kicking and saying she knows her rights. And then, she says, the cop comes back over.

YANCEY: He goes, oh, we got a little lawyer on our hands. Maybe those cuffs aren't tight enough.

MCEVERS: Naima says he tightens the cuffs, and she alleges in the lawsuit he breaks her finger.

YANCEY: So then I - 'cause I know my mother's there, and I'm remembering, like, all this criminal justice stuff that I learned, so I'm like - I'm yelling this, everyone is a witness. So I'm like, he's twisting my fingers. He's twisting my fingers. They're only doing this because I'm Black. I'm Black and Puerto Rican.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAREN EDMONSON: For years, the stories that I heard - they were mind-blowing.

MCEVERS: Karen Edmonson was the head of the NAACP in Yonkers at this time. In 2005, two years before this happened with Naima, Karen had started hearing a lot of stories like this.

EDMONSON: We would have NAACP meetings, and people would show up. And I'd call it therapy because people would come and vent, and I would listen 'cause I believe people need to be heard. And I started to notice a pattern.

MCEVERS: People in Yonkers were saying they were getting roughed up by the cops. Most of them were people of color. And the thing that struck Karen is that a good number of them were women.

EDMONSON: As they started to come in and tell me about the humiliating, degrading experiences they had, it just pushed me more and more.

MCEVERS: So Karen started going public with these. She had rallies with people like Al Sharpton...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL SHARPTON: I want the people of Yonkers to know, I don't back down off nothing.

MCEVERS: ...And press conferences where she started demanding that the Yonkers Police Department change its ways...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDMONSON: ...Police officers in Yonkers do not have their names on their badges.

MCEVERS: ...And asking the federal government to investigate the Yonkers Police Department. Then one day, Karen says she was taking a break from work...

EDMONSON: And I'm checking messages at lunchtime - you know, the NAACP voicemail - and there was a message from the Department of Justice.

MCEVERS: On the message, the Department of Justice lawyer said, you can demand a federal investigation all you want, but what you need to do is start getting people to put their complaints about the police in writing. So that's what Karen did. She collected dozens of complaints, people who alleged that cops beat them up in the street, in their homes, in jail, before taking them to jail.

And she sent these complaints to the Justice Department. Newspapers and TV stations in Yonkers started covering the stories, including Naima's story. Karen sent those news stories to the Justice Department, too. And in 2007, just months after Naima Yancey says she was assaulted by a police officer, the Department of Justice, the DOJ, announced it would come in and investigate the Yonkers police, like the feds intervened back in the '80s when the DOJ sued the city of Yonkers over segregated housing in schools.

EDMONSON: Yonkers - they have always been forced to do things, forced to integrate housing, forced to integrate our school system. And they needed assistance to bring in best practices with the police department.

MCEVERS: A federal investigation of a police department is a big deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Justice Department announced today it is launching a civil rights investigation of the Baltimore police.

MCEVERS: It's only happened 75 times in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Announce an investigation into the Chicago police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...The ground in Minneapolis this morning as part of a sweeping new investigation.

MCEVERS: It happened a lot during the Obama years, only once during Trump. And in Yonkers, in 2007, when the DOJ announced it was coming in, Naima Yancey was not optimistic.

YANCEY: At that time, it was feeling like, OK, the government is going to come in and look at the government and then - what? - kind of support the government. That's how I felt. You know, I was younger. I'm a little older now. But at that time, I remember me feeling like nothing's going to come out of this.

MCEVERS: It's not that nothing would come out of it. Many people we've talked to agree something is coming out of it. It just wasn't what Naima and many other people in Yonkers wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So that's our show today. How do you reform the police if you haven't fully accounted for the past? To answer that, we did some digging, and it didn't take long to find more people who say they were wronged by Yonkers police, people who shared their stories for the first time, which led us to wonder, how many more are there out there? All of that's coming up after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: OK, we're back. And when I say we are back, I mean me and my colleague, producer and reporter Dan Girma. He'll be telling the story, too.

DAN GIRMA, BYLINE: Like Kelly said in the beginning, Naima Yancey's case is one of dozens of cases that helped bring the DOJ to Yonkers, but she wasn't super optimistic.

YANCEY: I remember me feeling like nothing's going to come out of this.

GIRMA: Naima eventually sued the city of Yonkers in civil court, claiming that Yonkers police officer Darren Moran caused her physical and mental harm. Naima and the city settled for $175,000. Moran and the city denied any wrongdoing.

MCEVERS: In the end, Naima says, she hoped that more would have come out of that process.

YANCEY: I think for me, in my case, justice would have been for Officer Moran to have been thoroughly investigated by the Yonkers Police Department or suspended or fired. Justice for me would have been, at that time, for him to have been relieved of his duties.

GIRMA: The Yonkers Police Department says Moran was thoroughly investigated. They say after an extensive eight-month investigation by their own internal affairs unit, he was exonerated on the complaint of excessive force. And they say no formal discipline was administered to him. We tried to talk to Moran, but he didn't respond. He's now retired.

MCEVERS: What Naima wanted - for Officer Moran to be more heavily disciplined for what she says happened - that's not what the DOJ does when it comes to investigate a police department. They don't come in and say, we're going to check this guy or fire that guy.

GIRMA: So what do they do? How does DOJ oversight work in a police department? To answer that, we're going to go back a few years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GIRMA: For most of this country's history, the federal government didn't have jurisdiction over police departments. That all changed after Rodney King, a Black man who was beaten by white cops.

MCEVERS: It was 1991, and Congress started debating how the federal government might start to regulate thousands and thousands of police departments around the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Here in Washington, Congress used the Rodney King incident to examine whether the FBI...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: After watching, repeatedly, the videotaped beating of Rodney King and reading the...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It seems to me that we ought to fashion, out of this tragedy, an opportunity to strengthen our laws and to send a signal that ought to be sent.

MCEVERS: That signal eventually was sent in the form of a new federal law - the 1994 crime bill - yes, that crime bill, the one many now say only increased mass incarceration. But it has this one section that says if the U.S. attorney general believes a law enforcement agency has engaged in a, quote, "pattern or practice that deprives people of their civil rights," the feds have the right to, quote, "seek relief," which means investigate a police department and sue them, if need be. The Yonkers investigation started during the George W. Bush administration. Back then, the feds would come in, spend a couple years looking at allegations, but then the findings of the investigation would not be made public.

CHRISTY LOPEZ: It sort of sent this message to the community that, you know, maybe what was done to you wasn't unlawful. Maybe it wasn't that bad. Maybe you shouldn't expect to be treated any better.

MCEVERS: This is Christy Lopez. She worked in the DOJ division that did these investigations from 1995 to 2000 and again from 2010 to 2017, when she was deputy chief of the division. She says often, during the Bush era, the DOJ would basically give police departments a list. Like, here are all the things we would like for you to fix. Later, during the Obama administration, the DOJ found more forceful ways to get a police department to reform, Lopez says. First, publish what they found in their investigation.

LOPEZ: Your government, for the record, is saying, yes, this thing happened to you. It was wrong.

MCEVERS: And second, that list of things the police department was supposed to do, that was now enforceable by a federal judge and often came with a court-appointed monitor. Like, do this stuff or else.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GIRMA: Thing is, Yonkers is still under a Bush-era type deal, which means that there is a list of stuff the DOJ would like them to do, but there's no court monitor - no really powerful or-else. Still, that list of reforms for Yonkers, it includes better policies on use of force, stops, searches and arrests, better ways for people to file complaints against the cops and get those complaints investigated and better ways to track and identify problematic officers. Once Yonkers completes all these tasks, it will no longer be under the DOJ's watch. Yonkers Police Commissioner John Mueller wasn't always thrilled about the DOJ, but in recent years, he got on board with the reforms.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JOHN MUELLER: I will tell you now, categorically, that it was the best thing that ever happened to the Yonkers Police Department.

There is no way that we could have changed and transformed to the way we did without having an outside entity like the Department of Justice's assistance.

We are better because they're here. We are a better police department. And the best way to explain it is...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Still, for people like Naima, the DOJ didn't do what she wanted. They didn't investigate her case and try to find some resolution. Again, that's just not what the DOJ does.

I recently went to see Naima's mother, Nancy Vazquez. She still lives in the same house as she did back in 2007. She took me downstairs and showed me the garage door where Naima says Darren Moran came into the house, the stairs she says he pulled her down, the place where she says he beat her. Back upstairs, I was looking out the window, and I realized I could see the stop sign where Naima says the whole thing started, where Moran first pulled her over because he said she ran the stop sign.

...Corner was it? Was it that corner right there - that stop sign?

VAZQUEZ: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Where he said she didn't stop?

VAZQUEZ: Well, yeah. That's it (ph).

MCEVERS: Do they sit there? Like, like, are they...

VAZQUEZ: Yeah, sometimes they do.

MCEVERS: Waiting to catch people speeding, maybe?

VAZQUEZ: Yes, because you see the stop sign? Some people don't know that there's a stop sign, so they come down speeding.

MCEVERS: Yeah. When I pulled in and parked, they were - there were cops sitting there.

VAZQUEZ: Really? They knew you were coming here?

MCEVERS: If you didn't hear that, Nancy is asking me if the cops knew I was coming, like, 15 years after her daughter says she was beaten up by a cop in her house. Are they watching us? Are they going to retaliate against us for telling our story? This was not the first time we heard something like this in Yonkers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Which made us think, if the DOJ is not fully equipped to investigate all the alleged wrongdoing in the past and give people a sense their concerns are being fully addressed, who is? And are they equipped to give full accountability? To answer those questions, we had to do some digging.

SIMONE WEICHSELBAUM: It took someone dying for the authorities sort of to say, hey, well, something's going on.

MCEVERS: That's coming up after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: OK. We're back. So if you're going to answer this question - how do you reform the police if you haven't fully dealt with the past? - first, you have to try to understand what happened in the past. And to do that, you have to do some investigating. Lucky for us, we were working with an investigative reporter, Simone Weichselbaum. You heard her in the first episode. She worked at the Marshall Project at the time.

Let's start with - what made you even want to go digging in the first place or think that it was a good idea?

WEICHSELBAUM: Well, it's a part of my repertoire. As an investigative reporter - and this is what we do at the Marshall Project - there's nothing really online. Like, there's no news media clips. There was a paper trail - very limited - through DOJ. Like, what else is going on that we just don't know about? And usually you'll get that from court cases.

MCEVERS: Like federal and state court cases, lawsuits where people in Yonkers have sued police officers, alleging wrongdoing. This is the best way to find allegations against the police that are already on the record.

GIRMA: Simone said start there. So we did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GIRMA: And the rest of this episode is about where that investigation took us. When we looked at the lawsuits, we found that, since the DOJ started investigating Yonkers in 2007, the city settled at least 102 lawsuits totaling nearly $6 million. The majority of plaintiffs claimed that officers used an excessive amount of force.

MCEVERS: And we found that many officers were sued repeatedly over the years. And while we were looking, this one case really stood out - a case from March 2014.

GIRMA: According to the police report, police believed a man was selling drugs from a third-floor apartment in Yonkers. They got a warrant to search the apartment, went there and used a ram to break down the door.

MCEVERS: The report says one of the officers saw a man named Dario Tena run down the hallway, and then he, quote, "went out the bedroom window." Officers then looked out that window and saw Tena lying motionless on the ground. They called an ambulance, and he was pronounced dead at the hospital.

WEICHSELBAUM: We don't know what happened. His family said he was pushed out the window; cops say he jumped out the window. But this guy ends up dead after falling out of a window.

GIRMA: Dario Tena's family sued. They say Tena's injuries suggest he didn't jump out the window; he was pushed. And there's another detail in that case that really stood out to us.

MCEVERS: Turns out one of the cops who raided Tena's apartment lied to get the search warrant to enter the apartment in the first place, and a second cop approved that warrant. And then these two cops, Christian Koch and Neil Vera, were later caught, then charged and convicted for perjury in the Tena case. Koch later resigned, and Vera was fired.

GIRMA: After all this went down, the district attorney that oversaw Yonkers looked into more of Koch and Vera's cases and found five.

MCEVERS: Five other convictions where the DA says Koch had made false statements to get a warrant, five more people who were arrested, charged and, in at least two cases, went to jail after a Yonkers cop gave false information. So the DA threw those convictions out and dismissed several more cases that were pending.

WEICHSELBAUM: So as we learned, like, it took someone dying for the authorities to say, hey, something's going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WEICHSELBAUM: Meanwhile, the community - it was very easy for us to find people saying, oh, my God, look at these guys.

GIRMA: We should say, we tried to interview Koch and Vera, but Koch declined, and Vera did not respond. Koch owns a pizza place in Yonkers. One day, Simone and I went inside, and Koch was there. So we asked him to talk, and at first, he pretended to be someone else.

WEICHSELBAUM: And then we went back outside just to double-check the photo, and it clearly is him. Then I went back, and he said he didn't want to comment.

MCEVERS: So we went to the Yonkers Police Union lawyer, Andrew Quinn, and we asked him, what about these five bad warrants? What does the conduct of these two officers, Koch and Vera, tell us about the Yonkers police?

ANDREW QUINN: They were both convicted. They both pled guilty. They both went to jail. That's the way the system is supposed to work when you have cops who are providing false information, getting false warrants. If a cop does that and he gets caught - and he should get caught - but it was discovered, and as a result of that discovery, two officers went to prison. So it's not like the system didn't work.

MCEVERS: We should clarify, Koch and Vera did not go to prison. Koch did eight weekends in county jail. Vera did weekends in county jail over six months. Keith Olson, who's head of the Yonkers Police Union, says what happened wasn't even a pattern; it was just a few bad mistakes.

KEITH OLSON: We were averaging probably 5,000, 6,000 arrests back then, and we can only name a small handful of cases that may have gone wrong. So, you know, I guess the overall point is, is that really a pattern? The pattern is more of a department getting it right almost all of the time. And the results are, you know, a city like Yonkers with a pretty low crime rate and cops almost all the time getting it right. That's the pattern.

MCEVERS: And that, Olson and Quinn say, should be the end of it. These two cops got caught. They paid the price. Five bad warrants were found. Five convictions were thrown out. End of story.

GIRMA: But what we found is that it's definitely not the end of the story.

WEICHSELBAUM: They're like, OK, we found the bad actors. They're out of the department. Search warrant problem's fixed. It's over. It's finished. Wiping our hands. And I think there'd be a lot more, right? And I think this also speaks to what happens when you don't have a robust, like, media market. Yonkers is outside New York City. New York City papers are cut. No one's covering Westchester or New Jersey anymore. And all this shit happens, right? No one's paying them attention. I'm sure - like, we found a few. If we keep digging, there's going to be a lot of lives turned upside down because of this era.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: What Simone is saying is we know these five convictions were thrown out, but what about other people who might have been treated wrongly by these same officers who we don't know about? Who looks into those cases? And if the answer is no one, can this police department truly say it's reforming? To answer these questions, we kept digging.

GIRMA: First, we should say it was right around this time in our reporting that Simone got a new job. She left the Marshall Project for NBC News. So we teamed up with another New York City-based investigative reporter who does a lot of work on policing and criminal justice.

MCEVERS: His name is George Joseph, and at the time, he was with the public radio station WNYC. He had just done this blockbuster reporting that found wrongdoing in the police department in Mount Vernon, a town that is right next to Yonkers. And his reporting eventually led the DOJ to come in and investigate Mount Vernon. George now works at The City. It's a nonprofit newsroom in New York. And when we first met, I asked George, if we want to see if there are other people out there in Yonkers who might have allegations against Koch and Vera, how would we do that?

GEORGE JOSEPH: You know, as a reporter, I've always felt like you have to go into the communities that are being affected by something and hear what people are saying 'cause they have a lot of knowledge. They know who the alleged bad actors are, who the detectives they trust are. And so if you go out and knock on doors and talk to people, you can learn about very specific allegations. And so what I said was, go look at the records in the Yonkers Police Department of who these officers arrested, who they interacted with. Were there complaints? Just who did they put in handcuffs? If you go and talk to those people, you may hear more things.

MCEVERS: So that's what we did. We requested all the arrest reports - they're called incident reports - for Koch and Vera. The police told us there were hundreds of these things.

GIRMA: It took months to get the reports, and even then we didn't get everything we asked for. But we did get access to dozens of reports from 2011 to 2014. We read these reports, which are basically Koch, Vera and other officers' versions of what happened. And then we went to as many people as we could find who were named in the reports to ask them what happened.

MCEVERS: And it did not take very long - like, just a few days - to find people who claimed they were wronged by Koch and Vera and who were willing to go on the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So we're going to tell you their allegations. We were able to confirm some but not all of the details. One man, Cornell Davis, was stopped and searched by Vera for trespassing in 2013, but Davis says he wasn't trespassing. The cops say in the report they found crack on Davis. Davis says he had no crack. A year later, Davis says Vera stopped him again, searched him, took him to jail but didn't charge him. We couldn't confirm this, but Davis says it seemed like he was being picked on by Vera.

GIRMA: A second man, Dane Simpson, was approached by Koch and other officers in Yonkers in 2012.

DANE SIMPSON: I was sitting in my vehicle. The officers pretty much materialized out of nowhere, removed me from my vehicle.

GIRMA: The police report says Koch saw Simpson trying to stuff a gun in his pants, but Simpson says he had no gun. The report says police arrested Simpson and took him to jail. And then when his mom showed up, Simpson says police threatened to charge her.

SIMPSON: When my mother came to get my vehicle, being that my vehicle was in her name, they told my mother that they could arrest her.

GIRMA: Simpson's mother declined to comment, so we couldn't verify this. Simpson says, to protect his mom, he signed a confession saying he had the gun and pleaded guilty to illegal gun possession. He eventually did seven years in jail.

MCEVERS: A third man is Walter Nichols. In 2013, he was stopped for public urination. The cops said in the incident report he had drugs on him. Walter Nichols says the cops planted drugs on him, though we could not verify that.

WALTER NICHOLS: I say they put it on me, OK? Because ain't no way I had it on me. All I did was stop and just took a piss, and all of a sudden, an unmarked car just popped up out of nowhere with a couple of guys who ain't even flash no badges.

MCEVERS: A few months later, an incident report says the same cop who first arrested Walter Nichols for public urination saw Nichols on the street, got out of the police car and approached Nichols. The incident report says the officer had prior knowledge that Nichols had a warrant out for his arrest for possession of marijuana. Nichols says it was like this cop had it out for him.

NICHOLS: What is his personal vendetta? Like, did I kick your dog? Did I curse you out?

MCEVERS: To be clear, Walter Nichols admitted to us that he used to sell drugs before 2010. But he says, with these two arrests in 2013, it's like this one officer was punishing him for crimes he was no longer committing. Walter Nichols spent a year in jail after that second arrest. And he told us he didn't recall the name of the officer. And then I showed him a photo of Neil Vera.

NICHOLS: Yep. Yep, that's him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GIRMA: So that's three people on the record who say they were mistreated by Koch or Vera, and in two cases who say they were wrongfully sent to jail. The Yonkers Police Department says none of these men have filed a formal complaint with internal affairs. And, they say, not only have Koch and Vera been separated from service with the department, they also can't be police officers anywhere else in the state of New York. It's hard to know the full story of each of these men's allegations. But what their stories suggest is, there could be a bigger pool of people who were affected by these already convicted cops.

At this point, we went back to George. And we were like, so whose responsibility is it to look into allegations like this? And he said, up until recently, they would likely just be ignored. Now, he says, one change in the Black Lives Matter era is the rise of progressive prosecutors, DAs in cities like Philly, LA and New York who are going back into the record and looking at allegations against cops and throwing out huge numbers of cases.

JOSEPH: So in New York, there are five borough prosecutors. And four of the five in the last few years have thrown out a sort of mass number of alleged wrongful convictions. Now, usually what's happened is, prosecutors have identified an officer whose word they can't trust, for example, because they were convicted for lying in an arrest or a conviction. Subsequently, they do reviews. And they say, here are the cases that hinged on the word of this police officer. We can't actually trust that word anymore, so we're going to toss these cases.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GIRMA: We're talking hundreds of cases all around New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The Brooklyn district attorney is asking judges to dismiss 90 drug convictions that were based on the testimony of a former detective.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: In Queens, a judge vacated dozens of cases which relied on convicted NYPD detectives.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: The Bronx district attorney says there'll be a total of more than 500 cases dismissed because those cases...

JOSEPH: Hundreds of cases that, like Koch and Vera's cases, were based on the word of officers who've been found guilty of falsifying information, cases that were reexamined by prosecutors and just thrown out.

MCEVERS: The prosecutor responsible for Yonkers is Westchester County District Attorney Mimi Rocah. And we wanted to know if she has plans to do the same thing with the Yonkers police.

Yeah? OK. Great.

So we sat down with her. And pretty quickly, she told us that Koch and Vera's cases are now under review.

MIMI ROCAH: It's something that you know happened. There's not a question. And so you would be sort of putting your head in the sand to not go look a little more broadly at their body of work.

MCEVERS: Why just under review, we asked her, why not throw out all of Koch and Vera's cases like those other prosecutors have done?

ROCAH: On this one, I'm going to say, we may, we may not. I don't know. I mean, we are still very much a work in progress, you know?

MCEVERS: And the thing is, Koch and Vera are just two of more than hundreds of cops who have or are serving in Yonkers. And these were the two that got caught. What if there are more bad cops out there? Who finds those cases? How do those cops get held accountable?

GIRMA: Rocah says there is a way for people to come forward. Her office has this thing called the Conviction Review Unit, which looks at cases where people claim they were wrongfully convicted.

ROCAH: People who are actually innocent, that's obviously the top priority. And then second, looking at cases where there might be wrongful convictions, meaning something that went so awry in the process.

GIRMA: For people like Walter Nichols. If he believes he was wrongfully arrested, Rocah says, he should go to the unit's website and make a complaint.

ROCAH: The best way for the process to work is for people who have actual individual claims that they feel haven't yet been looked at in any real or meaningful or any way at all, this is why we have this.

GIRMA: So far, Rocah's office says about 70 people have come forward. Forty of these have been taken on by the unit. Danny Sullivan, who you heard in the first episode, he alleged that Yonkers police retaliated against him for filing a complaint about them and that they planted drugs on him. His request to have his case reviewed was denied. Walter Nichols and the two other men we talked to in this episode who have allegations against Koch or Vera have not come forward. He and Dane Simpson told us they were afraid the Yonkers police would retaliate against them if they did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Mimi Rocah was very careful to say she is not one of these so-called progressive prosecutors. Westchester County, which is just north of New York City and includes not just Yonkers and Mount Vernon but also some fancy suburbs, is different from New York City. We talked to George about this. He has reported on Mimi Rocah a lot. And he says, when it comes to holding police accountable and reckoning with the past as part of police reform, it depends on where you are, which can be very unsatisfying for a lot of people.

JOSEPH: That down-the-middle approach tracks with who Mimi Rocah is. She ran on a reform platform. But at the same time, she also highlighted her past experience as a former federal prosecutor. And she's always said that she cares deeply about prosecuting violent crime and helping victims, in her view. And then there's also the political angle of this, which is in Westchester County, you have a bunch of small police departments that have their own police unions and thus their own pro-law enforcement constituencies built into the system. At the same time, you don't have an extremely powerful public defender network and civil society groups that are pushing and demanding speedy action on alleged law enforcement misconduct, whereas in New York City, we have had that for a long time.

MCEVERS: Right. So it sounds like what you're saying is, you know, if you want police accountability, hope that you live in a place where there's strong civil society, the community's demanding it - right? - and there's the political will on the part of this, like, single person, elected official who has the leeway to decide yes or no, one way or the other, to go after them. If you want, you know, the police to account for the past, you need all of those things to be in place. Is that what you're saying?

JOSEPH: Yes.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

JOSEPH: And you need political wins nationally that make that cool because in the post-George Floyd protest moment, a lot of prosecutors are thinking, how can I address these concerns, these grievances, these demands for change? Now that energy has dissipated to some degree.

MCEVERS: And so what are people to do? You know what I mean? Like, a person in the community who feels like they've been wronged and who looks at a police department and says, they say they're trying to reform. The Department of Justice has come in, and they're trying to fix it. But still, I had this thing that happened to me, and no one is going to fix that thing that happened to me. What are they supposed to do?

JOSEPH: Yeah, I think the answers have to come from the communities that are affected by both violent crime and abusive policing. They need to be the ones that say, this is what we want. And lawmakers need to follow their lead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Naima Yancey got her master's in public administration. She's now a diversity officer for the state of New York. She doesn't like to talk about what she says happened to her back in 2007. She doesn't want that to be what people know her for.

YANCEY: I always struggle with it, but it's a part of me. It's something that's been put - placed upon me. And it wasn't something that was a part of my plan.

MCEVERS: When you ask Naima now what she wants out of all of this, she no longer expects anything to happen to the officer who she says assaulted her. He's retired now. But what she does want to know is that something like that won't happen again, that the police department is learning from the past, listening to people and making specific changes, like building a more robust system for people like her to make complaints and making those complaints public.

YANCEY: Like, how many complaints has a police officer had? What were those complaints? What areas of the city are those complaints being made?

MCEVERS: And she says police should follow up on those complaints.

YANCEY: What was the determination here, right? Like, what procedures took place once this complaint happened? And how did we decide that this person can still be on the beat and on the force?

MCEVERS: In other words, Naima Yancey doesn't need someone to say they're sorry for what happened to her or to reinvestigate or throw out her case. And what she's saying is she wants the Yonkers Police Department to do the kinds of things the DOJ is actually requiring police departments to do all over the country - things that sound so simple. But still, police departments have to be compelled to do them. Just like Christy Lopez, who used to work for the DOJ, said earlier - to actually reform, a police department needs to admit that bad things happened, fix the system so they won't happen again and be transparent about that process every step of the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GIRMA: Coming up, the Yonkers police want more officers of color, but some people don't know if they can be Black and blue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Am I betraying my community by becoming a cop, or am I going to be someone who actually gets on the force and makes a difference?

MCEVERS: This episode was reported by Dan Girma, Simone Weichselbaum and me. Simone is now an investigative reporter at NBC News. Huge thanks to them and the Marshall Project for making this collaboration possible. And huge thanks to George Joseph and his former and current bosses at WNYC and The City.

The episode was produced by Dan and mixed by Lee Hale. It was mastered by Robert Rodriguez and Gilly Moon. Big thanks also to Jess Jiang and Annie Iezzi. The episode was edited by Jenny Schmidt, Leslie Eaton and Bruce Auster. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom. Our researcher is Tracy Brannstrom. Our fact-checker is Naomi Sharp. Our archivist is Susie Cummings. Our lawyer is Micah Ratner. Our boss is Anya Grundmann. Big thanks to Nicole Beemsterboer and Neal Carruth.

Also, we need to make a clarification about last week's episode. Technically, the Yonkers Police Department was being investigated by the Department of Justice from 2007 to 2016. After that is when it came under DOJ oversight, which still exists today.

We'll be back with more from Yonkers next week. Meanwhile, subscribe if you have not already. Leave reviews. Tell your friends about us. Follow us at @nprembedded on Twitter. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.