There were many clues that the Police Department in upstate Wallkill, N.Y., had a big problem. One was the widely reported discovery of the police chief, James Coscette, having sex with a woman in the back seat of a police car.
That was deftly characterized in an official report as ”the chief’s dalliance.”
And then there was the harassment, intimidation and outright coercion of women by Wallkill cops, both on and off duty. Predatory behavior was the rule.
Last spring a 23-year-old woman driving alone was stopped and arrested for drunken driving. ”In fact,” according to court papers filed by State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, ”she was not intoxicated.” A videotape of the stop showed that the woman had ”passed the field sobriety test.”
Nevertheless, she was taken into custody. The following week the arresting officer approached the woman and suggested he could get the charges dropped if she would go out with him. The woman declined. A judge later dismissed the charges.
In another case, a cop who had arrested a woman on a petty larceny charge ordered her into a holding cell and told her to take her pants down so he could search for contraband. The woman, frightened, complied. Later the officer told the woman that he would try to have the charges reduced if she would meet with him privately.
The Wallkill cops even had a special vehicle, known as the ”stealth car,” that was used for following women drivers. The front of the car had no markings to indicate that it was a police vehicle. Late one night a cop in the stealth car followed an 18-year-old woman as she was driving home from her job at a movie theater. On a particularly dark, almost deserted road, the officer began flashing his headlights.
”Not seeing any police marks on the car, she became afraid for her safety and continued driving,” the court papers said. The woman pulled into the driveway of her parents’ home and began blowing the horn. By the time her mother came out of the house, the driver was crying. When the mother attempted to comfort her daughter, the cop pulled his gun, cursed, and told her to stay back.
The teenage driver was arrested and taken to jail, where she was held for a couple of hours and then released on $500 bail.
Wallkill is an Orange County town of about 25,000, and for the past few years its residents have had to put up with a variety of torments from the 25-member police force. Teenage girls employed at a local food store took to hiding in a back room because of the repeated pawing and suggestive comments of an on-duty, uniformed police officer. When the town’s voluntary civilian Police Commission conducted an investigation of the department (prompted by complaints about its crime-fighting ineptitude), the members of the commission found themselves and their families being harassed by the police.
The commission’s investigation showed what was already widely known — the Wallkill cops were out of control. ”There is no sense of responsible leadership in the Police Department,” the commission said in a report released last summer.
Eventually the Police Commission recommended that the Police Department be dismantled. The Town Board, protective of the police, disagreed. It abolished the commission.
Attorney General Spitzer, responding to the continued insanity, filed a federal lawsuit against the town of Wallkill last week, charging that it had failed to rein in its lawless Police Department. The suit asks the court to impose a series of reforms on the police and to appoint a federal monitor to oversee the department.
”This was a breakdown at many different levels,” Mr. Spitzer said. ”We want the proper governing structure to be put back in place.”
Mr. Spitzer’s suit is a civil action. I asked the Orange County district attorney, Francis D. Phillips, whether criminal charges would be pursued — for false arrest and sexual misconduct, among other things.
Mr. Phillips sounded reluctant to follow that route. He said he wouldn’t know ”for sure” until he meets next week with Mr. Spitzer’s office.
We’ll see if yet another public official, sworn to uphold the law, chooses to avert his eyes to outrageous police behavior.