An officer was taunted and spat at. Now he faces criminal charges

Sgt Phillip Wong is accused of punching one man in the face and kneeling on the back of another who was shouting, “I can’t breathe.” Photo: Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times
A New York police sergeant was charged on Thursday with attacking two handcuffed suspects in separate arrests, punching one in the face when he was in a cell and kneeling on the back of another who was shouting “I can not breathe” from a subway station floor.

The sergeant, Phillip Wong, acted after being spit at in one instance and taunted with anti-Asian slurs in the other, the authorities said. But the provocations did not justify his responses, Cyrus R, Vance Jr, the Manhattan district attorney, said.

“When NYPD officers head into the field each day to face unknown and potentially life-threatening situations, they do one of the most difficult jobs in the world,” Vance said in a statement. “But having sworn an oath to protect and serve their communities, those difficult jobs need to be carried out with the utmost integrity and professionalism.”

That was especially true, he added, for officers in supervisory roles. “This sergeant grossly violated his training — and the law — during the arrests of these two individuals, whose conduct did not justify these violent responses,” he said.

In a brief court appearance on Thursday afternoon, Sergeant Wong, in handcuffs, pleaded not guilty to third-degree assault and attempted third-degree assault, both misdemeanours.

The arrests at issue in the case against Sergeant Wong occurred before the police killing of George Floyd last year unleashed a nationwide wave of protests over persistent racism in the criminal justice system while focusing intense public scrutiny on the aggressive tactics that officers have sometimes used to restrain suspects.

In New York, the most notable recent example of how deadly such tactics can be involved Eric Garner, a Black man on Staten Island who died in 2014 after one officer placed him in a chokehold as others tried to handcuff him. “I can not breathe,” Garner pleaded repeatedly before dying — a call for help that became a national rallying cry.

Police Department guidelines have long prohibited officers from using chokeholds, including “any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air,” except in extremely limited circumstances, and they are trained not to sit, kneel or stand on people’s heads, backs or chests.

The department’s rules also forbid officers from using force as retaliation and against handcuffed detainees, except to prevent injury, stop an escape or overpower someone who is resisting.

The rules have not kept New York officers from employing the banned practices. The charges against Sergeant Wong, 37, were announced a day after it emerged that the city had agreed to pay $575,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a man who said an officer had put him in a chokehold and shot him 13 times with a Taser over a suspected noise violation.

The district attorney’s office gave the following account of the arrests that prompted the charges against Sergeant Wong, a 15-year department veteran who has been suspended without pay.

In the first, in October 2019, he was among a group of officers who took a 48-year-old man and two other people to a Harlem precinct for arrest processing. Once there, he and two other officers put the man, who was handcuffed, into a holding cell.

As the officers closed the cell door, the man kicked it and began to spit at them. Sergeant Wong pushed past the two other officers, opened the door and punched the man in the face. The man was taken to a hospital, where he got stitches for a cut above his right eye.

The second arrest occurred at the subway station at Broadway and West 96th Street in April 2020. An officer there under Sergeant Wong’s supervision arrested a 35-year-old man after seeing him punch someone on an arriving train.

As officers led the man out of the station, he yelled obscenities and anti-Asian slurs at Sergeant Wong and then kicked him in the leg. Sergeant Wong and a second officer took the man, his hands cuffed behind him, to the ground, with the man on his stomach and Sergeant Wong kneeling on his back.

The man continued to taunt Sergeant Wong, and then shouted, “I can’t breathe.”

Sergeant Wong, using an obscenity for emphasis, responded that he did not care “if you can breathe or not” and punched the man in the side of his face. He then placed both of his knees on the man’s back and bounced on him repeatedly.

The man was taken to a hospital, where staff members determined that he had not sustained any injuries.

An assistant district attorney, Carolina Nevin, told Judge Curtis Farber of State Supreme Court on Thursday that Sergeant Wong’s supervisor had reported the 2019 episode to the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

“Despite this,” she added, the second incident had taken place. Nevin said the district attorney’s office was seeking a sentence of 60 days in jail.

Later, Sergeant Wong’s lawyer, Andrew Quinn, suggested the episodes were a reflection of an atmosphere in which people feel emboldened to denigrate officers, sometimes with racial slurs.

“You hear people say vile, terrible things to police officers all the time,” Quinn said, adding, “At some point, somebody’s going to have to start to realize that cops aren’t getting paid enough to have racial and ethnic slurs hurled in their faces.”

The Legal Aid Society said it was representing the man involved in one of the arrests, but declined to provide further details. Jennvine Wong, a Legal Aid staff attorney, called the charges against Sergeant Wong “a step in the right direction.”

“But it is merely one case in many where police officers believe they are above the law,” she said. “For too long, officers have gotten away with brutally assaulting our clients, lying on the witness stand, planting evidence and other egregious acts of misconduct.”

The Police Department did not respond to questions about its investigation into Sergeant Wong’s actions. If convicted of assault, he could be fired or forced to retire, according to the department’s disciplinary guidelines.

(An earlier version of this article misstated, based on inaccurate information from the Manhattan district attorney's office, the surname of an assistant district attorney who appeared in court today. She is Carolina Nevin, not Nevins.)

Colin Moynihan contributed to the reporting.

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