Two years ago, former tennis star James Blake was killing a few free seconds outside a Manhattan hotel, waiting to catch a ride to the U.S. Open in Flushing, N.Y., when a man barreled toward him.
Bald. White T-shirt. Sneakers. Full-speed ahead.
At first, Blake thought it might be a friend he didn’t recognize, someone happy to wrap him in a bear hug. Instead, it was plainclothes NYPD officer James Frascatore who grabbed Blake. He then swung him down to the New York City pavement, and put a knee in the 35-year-old’s back as he snapped handcuffs over the former Top 10 tennis player’s wrists.
After a tense 10 to 15 minutes, the officer and other law enforcement on the scene realized they had messed up, incorrectly identifying Blake as the suspect they’d targeted in a fraud investigation.
The tennis pro, however, spoke out and the incident became a well-publicized flash point in the national debate over excessive force and biased policing. The 2015 incident generated apologies to Blake from New York City’s mayor and its police commissioner.
“I know that a lot of people have no voice to have any recourse,” a seemingly still-shaken Blake told “Good Morning America” a few days after the takedown. “I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to be sitting here with you to tell this story and let people know this happens too often and most times it’s not to someone like me.”
Now the officer involved is firing back, not only at Blake but at nearly everyone involved.
On Tuesday, Frascatore filed a federal defamation lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York. Taking aim at Blake’s June 2017 book, “Ways of Grace,” which covers the incident, the lawsuit says the tennis star and his publisher have cast Frascatore “as a racist and a goon.”
“Though this characterization could not be farther from the truth, this public perception has not only led to his family fleeing their home in fear as a result of public threats to their safety, it has ruined a good man’s career, name and reputation,” the lawsuit says.
But Frascatore does not stop with Blake. The lawsuit also names the city, NYPD and the department’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, accusing the city of scapegoating the officer as a racist for what he claims was an honest, understandable mistake.
In his first public comments since his run-in with Blake, Frascatore defended his actions to the New York Post this week. “I have a family to go home to. I’m on a crowded sidewalk, with a possibly armed suspect in the middle of 42nd Street,” the officer said. “You have to take control of the situation. I can’t just be pulling out my gun.”
Blake has yet to publicly comment on the lawsuit. He could not be reached late Monday night.
The officer — who is still on “modified duty” with the NYPD pending an ongoing disciplinary process — offers his own account of the Blake incident. At the time, the plainclothes members of the NYPD’s Financial Crimes Task Force were monitoring the hotel for suspects in a fraud ring. Blake, Frascatore says in his legal complaint, bore a “striking resemblance” to the suspect.
After cuffing Blake, then realizing the mistake, Frascatore and the officer running the operation “personally apologized to Blake and explained the mistaken identification.” At the end of the encounter, Blake and Frascatore “shook hands and patted each other on the back.”
But when the situation blew up in the media, the department higher-ups, including Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, publicly denounced Frascatore. “They actively avoided opportunities to set the record straight with the media and offered no defense of their own dedicated officer, leaving Plaintiff to hold the bag for the entire incident,” the lawsuit says.
Frascatore also says details from his personnel file, including information on past complaints, were illegally leaked to the news media by members of the civilian review board. By portraying the officer “as a racist during this process, two New York City agencies,” the review board and the NYPD, “have intentionally discriminated against Plaintiff on the basis of race,” the lawsuit says.
The officer further argues the tennis star’s portrayal of the incident in interviews and his book also paints Frascatore as a racist.
“Blake sells his story as an encounter with a racist police officer, offering personal inscriptions of his book on his own website with the following description of how he has ‘faced racism firsthand — publicly — first at the U.S. Open and then in front of his hotel on a busy Manhattan street, where he was tackled and handcuffed by a police officer in a case of ‘mistaken identity.’”
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