Of course, when a police officer lies to get someone arrested and falsely charged with a crime, that officer becomes the criminal — and the falsely arrested person, the victim. Consider the case of Pedro Barbosa, who was arrested and wrongly accused of trying to hit to NYPD officers with his car after they confronted him back in February.
Barbosa, 44, concedes that he has made mistakes in his life. First and foremost, he has a drug problem, which has led to arrests for possession, though he says he is now in treatment. The drug problem made it difficult for him to stay employed, which caused him to fall behind on his child support payments. That led to a suspension of his driver’s license, which only exacerbated his difficulty finding a job. When he hit bottom, he resorted to stealing rolls of quarters from the laundry rooms of apartment buildings to support his drug habit. But he has never been accused of using violence or a weapon.
At a little after 12:30 a.m. on Feb. 1, Barbosa drove to visit a friend in the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn. He found an open spot, and parallel parked his car. He then noticed a black, unmarked SUV pull up alongside him. Barbosa immediately recognized it as an unmarked police vehicle driven by NYPD officer Michael Bergman and his partner (whose name has not been released). He recognized them because those two particular officers seemed to have it out for Barbosa. They knew about his drug problem, and knew about his suspended license. They had stopped him more times than he could count, Barbosa claims, and had yet to find a charge that would stick.
“It seemed like every time, 24/7, no matter what, if I’m anywhere, they were there,” Barbosa says. “They would follow me wherever I went. They’d tell me, ‘We’re going to get you off the streets.'" Bergman and his partner were part of the NYPD’s Grand Larceny Division. Barbosa’s suspended license then gave Bergman carte blanche to pull Barbosa over any time he saw him behind the wheel. “If they found anything in my car, even a screwdriver, they’d arrest me for possessing burglary tools,” he says.
The police SUV pulled up along side Barbosa and its flashers flickered on. Given the time of night and his prior experience with the officers, Barbosa panicked. He put his car in drive, steered out of the parking spot and drove away.
The surveillance video at the top of this piece, which was obtained by an investigator for Barbosa’s lawyer, backs all of this up. Barbosa did drive off, but at no time was either officer at risk of being struck by Barbosa’s car.
But Bergman would later tell the grand jury an entirely different story. “The defendant locked eyes with me, turned the car into reverse, floored the vehicle into reverse approximately seven feet,” Bergman said. “As I’m still yelling, the defendant put it in drive, turned the vehicle towards me to the point where I was in between his headlights, and if I didn’t jump out of the way, I would have been under his vehicle.”
The video above shows that almost none of that is true. Barbosa never put the car in reverse, never accelerated in reverse, and Bergman was never “between his headlights.”
Bergman wasn’t finished. The prosecutor asked, “Can you describe the manner in which he reversed?”
“A high rate of speed,” Bergman answered, “to the point where it left skid marks on the ground.”
The prosecutor asked Bergman to be more specific as to where he was when Barbosa drove the car right at him — which again, didn’t happen. Bergman answered, “Directly in front of his car between the headlights.”
The prosecutor asked how far Bergman was from Barbosa’s car. He replied, “Initially, seven feet. And after he accelerated, maybe a foot.” He then told the grand jury that he had to jump out of the way of Barbosa’s vehicle, which caused him to fall to the ground, leaving an abrasion on his elbow.
Again, none of this happened.
The second time Barbosa stole quarters from a laundry room, the building supervisor recognized him from a surveillance video and called Barbosa’s employer. He was immediately fired. Still, Barbosa called the building supervisor, told him he was trying to get clean, and offered to meet with him to set up a plan to pay back what he had stolen. The supervisor agreed to meet Barbosa, but then called the police, who arrested Barbosa when he arrived. When Barbosa showed up in court on Feb. 7, he was charged with two counts of second-degree burglary for the incidents of stealing quarters. In New York, it’s a violent crime to enter a “dwelling,” even if the accused never interacted with another person while committing the burglary.
But at least those were crimes he had actually committed. Because of Bergman, Barbosa was also charged one count of first-degree attempted assault, one count of attempted assault on a police officer, one count of first-degree reckless endangerment, two counts of second-degree attempted assault, one count of second-degree reckless endangerment, one count of third-degree assault, and one count of third-degree attempted assault. If convicted, the judge could have ordered his sentences to be served consecutively or concurrently. If it was the former, he was looking at a minimum of 15 years in prison, and a maximum of 45. If the latter, it would have been between five years and 15 years.
Barbosa is indigent, so his case was assigned to Scott Hechinger at BDS. In this sense at least, Barbosa was lucky. BDS is one of the better-funded public defense offices in the country. An investigator from the defense office went to the scene of the incident, saw a surveillance camera at the nearby Approved Oil Co., and obtained the footage that would set Barbosa free. It’s worth noting that many public defender offices around the country don’t have investigators, or if they do, they’re far too overworked to spend time on a low level case such as Barbosa’s.
If not for that investigator, it would have been Barbosa’s word against Bergman’s, and Barbosa — an addict with prior arrests — almost certainly would have lost.
Bergman was indicted on a charge of perjury, and in June the Brooklyn district attorney’s office announced an investigation into his previous cases. According to a spokesman for the office, the latter investigation is ongoing. Bergman was on paid modified duty with NYPD while he disputed the charges. Officers on modified duty earn their full salaries. In fact, the New York Daily News reported in 2016 that some officers put on modified duty after brutality allegations were able to double their salaries with overtime pay. NYPD has tried to curb the practice, but the new policy was overruled by an arbitration board last year.
As for Barbosa, after the video emerged, the attempted assault charges were dropped, and he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor petty larceny for stealing the quarters. Partly because of the parole violation that resulted from the assault allegation, he was in jail from Feb. 7 until July 3. His car is still impounded.
In addition to treatment, Barbosa is working with a reentry program to get his life back on track. “I still have a lot of work to do,” he says. But he says he wants to make the most of the chance he’s been given. “When they told me about the attempted assault, I really thought it was going to be over for me."
When the district attorney’s office released the names of untrustworthy officers, Bergman’s name wasn’t on it. Bergman was also one of four officers sued in 2015 by a man who alleged they had “illegally trespassed, searched, invaded, intimidated and violated” his civil rights. The city settled for $175,000. A spokesman for Gonzalez wrote in an email that the office couldn’t include all officers on the list it made public because of rules against releasing disciplinary actions taken against officers.
Last month, the district attorney’s office in the Bronx released its own list of NYPD cops with credibility issues. Again, the police unions protested, claiming that releasing the list only served to smear “honest, hard-working police officers.” But as Tim Cushing pointed out for TechDirt, the list included cops who were found to have given false or misleading testimony. Which means they aren’t honest. Some were found to have lied multiple times. The police unions are apparently taking the position that a few missteps shouldn’t ruin a police officer’s career. But lying under oath is a crime, just as possessing illegal drugs, or stealing quarters from a laundry room are. If people such as Pedro Barbosa have to face consequences for their crimes, so should the cops whose lies frame people such as Barbosa for crimes they didn’t commit.
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