In December 2015, the group NYC Shut It Down marched to Saks Fifth Avenue and Rockefeller Center, to demand justice for Laquan McDonald, a young man killed by Chicago police. Outside Rockefeller Center, NYPD moved in and arrested five people. M.J. Williams, an intellectual property attorney emerged from her arrest with a bloodied face.
An investigation by the New York Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) was launched. The top allegation: “PRISONER INCIDENT – INJURED – IN NYPD CUSTODY.”
IAB investigations are not made public, but a lawsuit filed by Williams has made available NYPD testimony by a sergeant and police officer for the IAB investigation and a partially redacted copy of the final IAB report.
Watch videos of the protest and Williams arrest
Brief video of the Williams arrest from one angle.
A second, longer video of the Williams arrest from a different angle.
This final video provides a roaming view of a longer portion of the protest before the arrest, which can be seen in the background from yet another angle at around 3:30
Despite video evidence that seems to show Williams’ being pushed to the ground by Deputy Inspector David Ehrenberg (the supervising officer at the scene) and then forcibly arrested as her face was pushed toward the pavement, in testimony for the IAB, Sergeant Mitchell Atiles can be heard saying, repeatedly, that Williams, “slipped and fell” on her own, and that no one was touching her when she was injured.
Sergeant Atiles goes on to say, “before [Williams] was arrested, she slipped and fell on the pavement, causing a small little, like cut on her right cheek.”
Atiles insists Williams hurt her cheek when, “she slipped and fell,” not during the arrest. The IAB report also says this: “Williams fell onto the sidewalk of location and sustained a small abrasion to the right side of her face.”
Whether she slipped or was pushed, it is not clear how Williams’ going to the ground could have caused the injury to her face, since she landed on her backside.
Nonetheless, Atiles testified saying, “no one was touching her [when she fell and was injured].” He continued, saying, “it’s not impossible for her to fall [on her own].”
In his testimony, Atiles says the arresting officer only placed his hands on Williams “after” she fell.
Listen to the relevant part of Sgt. Atiles phone call to the IAB here:
Ehrehnberg says, “I’m not f—ing with you today, you understand me?” during the arrest. Following the arrest, Ehrenberg can be heard saying to Williams that, “we both fell on the ground.”
Other testimony comes from the official arresting officer, Frank* Essig, who can be seen retraining one of Williams’ arms while Ehrenberg handcuffed her. Sergeant Atiles is Essig’s supervisor.
For the IAB investigation Essig was questioned in the presence of at least seven NYPD authorities, but he was not very talkative.
“He had her on the ground and I helped with getting her arm in handcuffs,” he said. “I didn’t see it,” he continued, referring to how Williams was injured, how she initially fell and her alleged attempt at intervening in an arrest. “[Ehrenberg] told me it was an OGA [Obstructing Government Administration], and that she was just getting in the way of police activity,” Essig said. The night of the arrest, Essig had been assigned to a “‘Black Lives Matter’ Detail.” Essig also says Williams “was the girl that [Ehrenberg] assigned me.” Listen here:
Listen to an excerpt of Officer Essig’s testimony to the IAB here:
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In the end, the IAB investigation—which had access to at least one of the videos of the incident—led to no disciplinary action and was closed the day after the arrest, with NYPD deputy chief James McCarthy determining that Williams’ “injury was sustained during her attempt to prevent other protestors from being arrested.” (Williams’ charge of Obstructing Government Administration was dropped after the New York County District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue charges.)
Williams is currently suing New York City, Ehrenberg, Essig and other officers at the scene. She is seeking damages for her cheek injury, and others to her foot, knee and spine. The suit also claims Williams’ phone was taken from her and tampered with, and raises other violations to her First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendment rights. “Nonetheless,” it reads, “the [officers] violently arrested, detained, and charged Ms. Williams with a crime that she did not commit.”
Williams’ attorney Sam Cohen told City Limits, “I’m never surprised when NYPD Internal Affairs latches onto a minor pretext to quickly close a mandatory investigation into a serious claim of police misconduct.” Williams declined to comment because of her pending lawsuit.
IAB investigators did not have Williams’ own testimony to work with. The investigation, McCarthy wrote in the IAB report, “was met with a lack of cooperation from Defendant Williams during the investigation.” According to the IAB report, Williams “refused to be interviewed at this time and will not make any statements without her lawyer being present.”
It’s not just video evidence that seems to contradict the NYPD’s narrative of what happened to Williams. Essig’s arrest report clearly says Williams was injured during the arrest. “While making a lawful arrest,” the report reads, “prisoner was physically forced to the ground, causing a small laceration to the right side of her face.” Why this was omitted from the IAB investigation is unclear.
It is also unclear whether Ehrenberg was interviewed. Essig’s testimony relies on what Ehrenberg told him. According to NYPD Detail Roster/Assignment Sheets from the night, Atiles was not among the officers assigned to the protest. A lack of first-hand knowledge would mean that if what Essig and Atiles said was inaccurate, they technically didn’t lie to the IAB because they were just relaying information they were told. Unintentionally saying something false to the IAB doesn’t come with a punishment.
Cynthia Conti-Cook of Legal Aid Society’s Special Litigation Unit says, “There are constantly issues with IAB not doing thorough investigations and not following through with questions and not asking questions that would reveal inconsistencies, because of the way officers are disincentivized from being truthful.”
The IAB is an arm of the NYPD, “dedicated to…fighting corruption within the NYPD.” It bills itself as a tool for the NYPD to maintain “the public’s trust.” To win that trust, the IAB says it “detect[s], investigat[es], and bring[es] to justice the small number of New York City police officers and civilians who engage in misconduct and corruption.”
The IAB’s ability to maintain or restore the public’s trust is challenged by recent accusations of “widespread lying” by members of the NYPD, allegations of sexual assault involving a number of officers and revelations of corruption involving others, as well as the fallout from controversial NYPD killings. Williams’ claim could add to those challenges.
*: Correction — the officer’s first name was originally reported as “Mitchell.”