1993 SPECIAL REPORT: "MIKE DOWD TESTIFIES TO NYPD CORRUPTION COMMITTEE"
NEW YORK, SEPT. 29 -- At the start of his testimony today before a city commission investigating police corruption, former patrolman Bernie Cawley was asked why his fellow officers called him "the mechanic."
"Because I used to tune people up," said Cawley, 29. "It's a police word for beating people up."
Were these suspects he was tuning up? a panel member asked.
"No," he answered. "I was just beating people up in general."
So began the third day of hearings by New York's mayoral commission on police corruption, an investigative panel formed in response to the discovery last summer of a police-run drug-selling ring in Brooklyn.
With a rapt and horrified city listening, clean-cut former members of New York's finest have testified about randomly breaking into apartments; stealing drugs, money and cocaine; lying to grand juries; "tuning up" people with leather gloves packed with lead; and generally breaking more laws than they enforced.
On Monday, the panel heard from Michael Dowd, a former officer in Brooklyn's 75th Precinct who said he took $8,000 a week for protecting a drug dealer. On day two of hearings scheduled to end next week, the commission heard a police internal affairs investigator describe how superiors thwarted his attempts to unearth corruption.
Perhaps the most sensational testimony, however, was given today when Cawley, a burly Bronx native, recounted how, in four years on the force, he randomly attacked people with his nightstick, flashlight and leather, lead-loaded "sap" gloves on as many as 400 occasions just "to show who was in charge."
Cawley was arrested in 1990 for selling stolen guns and then agreed, while in jail, to tell his story to the commission. Today, he gave a lengthy discourse about breaking down apartment doors to look for drugs and money, driving to neighborhood bodegas to buy scales to measure stolen cocaine, and running down fire escapes with garbage bags full of narcotics, semiautomatic rifles and thousands of dollars in cash stolen from apartments of drug dealers.
At 2 a.m. one day during his rookie year in 1986, he said, seven cruisers from his precinct gathered outside a drug-infested apartment building. Nightsticks raised, officers stormed inside without a warrant, he recalled.
"We just started beating people," Cawley said. "One lady came down the stairs with a radio in her hand. We smashed the radio with a nightstick and then threw her down the stairs. Anybody in the hallways or courtyard pretty much got beaten."
On another occasion, Cawley said, he and two other officers spent a Fourth of July detail drinking on duty, then decided to visit a Bronx brothel. The three men, in uniform, broke down the door, chased away the paying customers and then each grabbed a prostitute and retreated to a different bedroom.
"They didn't speak English real good," Cawley said. "They were real scared. But I said, 'Don't worry, we're police. It's okay.' After we calmed the ladies down, we had sex with them."
Asked if he ever was concerned that such activities would get him in trouble, Cawley described how citizens who tried to file complaints at the precinct office were harassed and told that "typing" their complaints would require a three-hour wait.
"Who's going to catch us?" he asked. "We're the police. We're in charge."
Milton Mollen, a judge for 24 years and former deputy mayor who heads the five-member, city-appointed commission, said he did not think the tales of brutality and corruption were indicative of actions by the entire New York police force.
"In any group of 30,000 people, you're going to find a certain percentage who are corrupt, abhorrent or even brutal," Mollen said after today's testimony. "The overwhelmingly majority of police officers are honest."
But Cawley and Kevin Hembury, a former colleague of Dowd, testified that, in crime-plagued precincts in the Bronx and Brooklyn in which they served, an overwhelming majority of their fellow officers were participating in some type of illegal activity. In some of the day's most striking testimony, the two men described police violence and criminality with a chilling banality, as if it were a normal part of police life.
Hembury, for example, said police commonly carried "throwaway" guns, weapons stolen from criminals, that could be left at the scene of a crime and "used as evidence against perpetrators."
He said officers at his Brooklyn precinct raided apartments of drug dealers "10 or 20 times a week" in 1991 and last year, dividing among themselves any money they found and reselling drugs and weapons they stole.
Over the years, he said, they grew particularly inventive in their methods of sneaking up on drug dealers, using taxis and one time borrowing a city ambulance to arrive undetected at a crack house.
His superiors, he said, were "quite aware of what was going on."