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For Years, a Tactical Police Unit in Mount Vernon, New York, Reigned With Impunity. Then One of Its Own Started Documenting the Abuse.
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=58814"><span class="small">George Joseph, Esquire and WNYC</span></a>   
Wednesday, 24 March 2021 12:54

Joseph writes: "For years, a tactical police unit in Mount Vernon, New York, reigned with impunity-protecting drug dealers, planting evidence, brutalizing citizens. Then one of its own started covertly documenting the abuse."

Mount Vernon police officer Murashea Bovell secretly recorded colleagues' accounts of police misconduct and brutality. (photo: George Joseph/WNYC)
Mount Vernon police officer Murashea Bovell secretly recorded colleagues' accounts of police misconduct and brutality. (photo: George Joseph/WNYC)

For Years, a Tactical Police Unit in Mount Vernon, New York, Reigned With Impunity. Then One of Its Own Started Documenting the Abuse.

By George Joseph, Esquire and WNYC

24 March 21

For years, a tactical police unit in Mount Vernon, New York, reigned with impunity—protecting drug dealers, planting evidence, brutalizing citizens. Then one of its own started covertly documenting the abuse.

ne night in the spring of 2017, Michelle Campbell was in her kitchen, cooking hot dogs for a few friends, when she heard the boom of her front door breaking. It was the narcotics unit of the Mount Vernon, New York, police. They carried a search warrant and a battering ram. They swarmed in, guns drawn.

The police ordered Campbell and her guests onto the floor and cuffed them. One officer, a detective in a tactical vest and a black hat named Camilo Antonini, surveyed the bodies. He singled out Campbell’s nephew, a skinny man with a scruffy beard and big eyes named Reginald Gallman.

As Gallman would later testify in a civil case, Antonini pulled him into the bathroom, threw him against the water pipe, and pummeled his rib cage with swift, tight punches. Gallman asked why he was being beaten. “You know why, you stupid motherfucker, you dumb-ass nigger,” he recalls the detective saying. The unit’s commander, a sergeant named Sean Fegan, came in and told Antonini to chill out. After five minutes, Gallman testified, he finally did.

Next it was Campbell’s turn for the bathroom. She says he cornered her in the kitchen and got in so close that she could smell his stale breath. But it’s his pockmarked face that sticks with her. “I know where you got the stuff,” he said. “I know whose stuff it is. Just tell me.” Indeed, Campbell had hidden three bags of crack inside her vagina, and she was terrified. At some point, she gave in. “It’s mine,” she said. “I have it.” She was escorted to the makeshift holding room so the bags could be removed.

Campbell swore that the drugs were hers and no one else’s. But she says Antonini pressed her to claim otherwise, that the drugs were in fact Reginald Gallman’s. If she did, the detective said, she could go free.

It was clear to Campbell, then fifty-four, that the officers were there for her nephew. Not because he was a drug dealer, which he was—crack cocaine, primarily—but because he was a drug dealer who’d refused to cooperate with the Mount Vernon police.

Several months earlier, Gallman had been brought into the station on a drug charge. He says that in a small holding room, Antonini, a former Marine with big muscles, made a proposition: Gallman could continue to deal drugs without worry; all he had to do was snitch on his customers. He could, in other words, become a confidential informant.

Eager to avoid jail, Gallman agreed. He says Antonini saved his number to his phone, gave him a code name—“Stretch”—and let him out the side exit. But then Gallman ghosted the detective, going so far as to smash his phone.

Still, run-ins with Antonini were inevitable—the city’s seventy thousand majority-Black residents live within just four square miles of densely packed homes, high-rises, and affordable housing—and whenever that happened, Antonini would demand that Gallman uphold his end of the deal. The raid on Campbell’s apartment was just the latest escalation.

Campbell says she declined Antonini’s offer to turn on her nephew, so she was arrested. At a hearing six days later, the police told their side of the story. Prosecutors did not call on Antonini to testify, but another detective said that as they burst in, the officers saw Gallman hand off a bag containing seventy rocks of crack to his aunt, who inserted the contraband inside herself in full view of the police.

Campbell spent nearly ninety days in jail. Gallman, then thirty-four, got three years’ probation.

This was not an isolated incident. Mount Vernon residents had alleged such abuse by the police for years—fabricating crimes, falsifying reports, detaining individuals who had committed no crime, and using excessive force, including strip and cavity searches that didn’t follow the department’s own protocols. And for those who alleged police misconduct, there was no viable recourse. Citizens didn’t have an independent agency to review their complaints. Their options were limited: They could file a complaint with the department’s internal-affairs bureau, file a complaint with the district attorney, or file a lawsuit.

Gallman chose the third option. From jail, he and his cousin, who was also at Campbell’s that night, filed their handwritten civil complaint against the department and the officers involved in the raid, alleging violent and excessive force. But it was hard to see the point. There was a deep-seated mistrust between the police and the community they were supposed to serve. And what court would believe a dealer’s word over a detective’s?

This time, though, something was different. A disillusioned Mount Vernon officer had been secretly taping conversations with his colleagues. In the following years, his recordings would corroborate many of the abuses that residents had been complaining about in vain.

In 2011, four years after he’d joined the department, Murashea Bovell was assigned to the narcotics unit, a specialized team of the detective division comprising six to eight officers at any given time. They prowled the streets on the south side of the city in unmarked police cars, scanning for dealers and users. They wore plain clothes and conducted undercover drug buys. And they often relied on residents who, facing charges, would trade information for the hope of leniency.

At first, Bovell, then thirty-two, was eager. He especially liked the intricate work of gathering evidence for search warrants. But in just two years, he would request a transfer back to patrol because of what he’d experienced.

Since the nationwide spike in violent crime associated with the surge in crack use in the eighties, police leaders have relied on specialized squads to tally large numbers of drug and gun arrests. Though they have different names—gangs squad, anti-crime, narcotics—they operate on a similar, broken- windows logic: identify and monitor the dealers and gang members whom the police blame for the bloodshed and arrest them before they can spill more.

But with little oversight and an incentive to notch arrests, these units are susceptible to corruption. From Philadelphia to Los Angeles, communities have reckoned with the abuses of elite tactical teams. Last summer, the NYPD, by far the largest police force in the country and a bellwether for all other departments, phased out its anti-crime unit, a vestige of the department’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, which had roiled Black and Latinx communities for decades.

For its part, Mount Vernon, which borders the northern edge of the Bronx, had been on a slow decline for years. In the seventies, it was the proud center of Black culture in very white, very affluent Westchester County. Nina Simone and Betty Shabazz were neighbors. Heavy D, Pete Rock, and Sean “Diddy” Combs grew up there. But the city fell on hard times, and its law-enforcement officers responded with aggressive policing, or worse. In the nineties, the department had such a reputation for pervasive corruption that FBI agents jokingly referred to it as “Mount Vermin.”

In 1994, the feds arrested three officers for stealing $10,000 from a gym bag that the FBI had planted in an apartment. One detective was caught on camera loading the money into his vest and handing a stack to the department’s chief of detectives.

The narcotics unit was often at the center of the misconduct. In 1997, a confidential informant tipped off the unit about a bar owner who allegedly was selling cocaine. The police obtained a search warrant and raided the business. They found their suspect, as well as drugs in a basement file cabinet. But they arrested the bartender, too, who was guilty of nothing more than being at work when the MVPD arrived, a judge found in a civil suit. In a small, windowless room at the station, she was ordered to strip and expose her genitals for inspection. The police found nothing. The bartender sued, claiming that she was arrested without probable cause and searched in violation of her Fourth Amendment rights, and won the case.

By the 2010s, Mount Vernon’s violent-crime rate had fallen, but the narcotics unit continued apace. Sergeant Sean Fegan, who’d served on the squad before, became its leader in the spring of 2013. As Bovell saw it, Fegan emphasized numbers and overlooked misconduct. In this environment, some officers thrived. The year before, Camilo Antonini had made fifty arrests. The year Fegan took over, that number jumped to 106, and in 2014, the year Antonini was promoted from officer to detective, to 151.

According to internal reports that Bovell filed last August at the department’s request, Antonini could be forceful, and he sometimes crossed the line. He slapped a handcuffed, helpless man in the unit’s holding room as Bovell watched. Another time, Antonini pocketed a hundred-dollar bill from a suspect’s purse. When she complained to Fegan about the missing money, the sergeant brushed her off.

Then there was the time the unit got a tip from a confidential informant about a man to whom he’d just sold PCP. Fegan and Antonini, with Bovell and his partner in tow, pulled over the buyer. Antonini called the informant and, as Bovell listened, learned precisely where in the car the stash was hidden. The officers found the drugs and arrested the buyer. The informant not only remained free; he got to keep his earnings.

By the end of 2013, Bovell had had enough. He was granted his transfer request to patrol duty. (At a public forum last September, Mount Vernon’s current police commissioner, Glenn Scott, said the reports filed by Bovell were vague.)

Over the next two years, city residents lodged several misconduct complaints that involved Antonini, for incidents that included assault, unwarranted cavity searches, and theft. In response, the department opened at least eight internal investigations, then dismissed them.

After returning to patrol, Bovell injured his knee and went on medical leave, which dragged on for months and then years. The department squabbled with him over his medical bills, which put Bovell on edge. Had his departure from the narcotics unit made him a target? At some point, he went into what he calls detective mode. If the department was keeping tabs on him, he could do the same. He started recording.

Alan Seward, forty-eight, is a self-described “ ’hood legend” who goes by the nickname Budda Bless. He grew up in Mount Vernon, where his family has lived for generations. “Everybody in this town knows me,” he says. “Eight to eighty, you know me.”

Seward began selling marijuana when he was eleven. He says that his first brutal encounter with the MVPD came four years later. One summer night, a brown Chevy pulled up to his block and two officers jumped out. They found his weed tucked inside a pack of cigarettes and threw him in the car. They asked his age. Seward said he was fifteen—too young to be charged as an adult. So instead of arresting him, they took him to a nearby park, punched him twice in the gut, and left him.

On the advice of his father, Seward went into the cocaine trade, and he was in and out of prison for three decades. In 2016, he completed his latest sentence, a two-year bit for cocaine possession. A year and a half later, he crossed paths with the MVPD again.

One evening in November 2017, the narcotics unit broke open the front door to Seward’s daughter Kierra Thompson’s apartment. They were looking for her father, according to a civil complaint filed by Seward. Instead, they found Thompson and her two children, ten and eight. As the officers searched, they kept Thompson handcuffed for an hour. They found no drugs, so a few plainclothes officers left to look for Seward at a bar nearby.

It was $2 Tuesday at the Bungalow, and to Seward, that meant betting opportunities at the pool table. He’d win game after game without trying, holding the stick in one hand as he worked the table. He says he’s known there as the One-Handed Bandit. During his sixteenth game that night, he noticed a few men in hoodies lurking by the jukebox. He kept an eye on them. As the men approached from behind, Seward gripped his pool stick, ready to swing. Then he saw their badges. Cops. Including Camilo Antonini.

Though Antonini had arrested him nearly a decade earlier, Seward didn’t recognize the detective. But he’d heard about this narcotics cop who’d been running the streets by his own rules. “Dudes said, ‘He got mad niggas snitching,’ ” Seward told me.

At the Bungalow, the officers cuffed him, then escorted him through the bar and down the block to their unmarked car. Antonini opened the back door, shoved Seward’s torso inside, then pinned down his legs outside the vehicle, according to the civil complaint. In full view of passersby, the detective pulled down Seward’s pants, exposing his genitals to anyone who happened to walk by, spread his cheeks, and searched his rectum. He found no contraband.

The police drove Seward to his daughter’s apartment. There, Antonini took him to the bathroom and strip-searched him a second time. Again, he came up empty. The detective stepped out of the room and returned with a small glassine bag filled with white powder. “Look at this,” Seward recalls the detective saying. “I found ten grams.” From the other room, Thompson yelled, “Daddy, they searched before you got here and they didn’t find nothing!” Seward looked at the bag, then at Antonini. “You can put that ten grams back in your pocket,” he said. Antonini punched him in the face, then said if Seward didn’t claim the drugs as his, the police would have no choice but to arrest his daughter. Seward complied.

At the station, he was strip-searched a third time, according to the complaint, with the same result as before. He was brought to a holding room. Antonini sat down calmly, as if that day’s brutality hadn’t occurred, and made a pitch. “It’s just me and you in here,” he said. “I already know you a real dude.” Antonini said that if Seward provided information that led to a gun arrest, he could walk out a side door of the station. “You won’t gotta worry about getting arrested,” Antonini said. “All you gotta do is give me your information.” Seward could even take the ten grams. “You’d be surprised by how many CIs I got,” the detective said.

Seward had received previous offers to become a confidential informant. But future license to operate with impunity, plus a parting gift? This was new. It didn’t matter. “I don’t even give a fuck,” he said. “One thing I do know is you don’t got me.” According to the complaint, the detective punched his face a second time.

Seward was taken to a cell and charged with possession. Afterward, in official paperwork, the police claimed that Antonini had stayed behind at Thompson’s apartment and that they’d found the ten grams in the pocket of Seward’s jacket at the Bungalow.

Seward was released on his own recognizance. He diligently showed up for court appearances until his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Fearing that he wouldn’t be around to see her, he stopped attending hearings. During his flight, the police added a felony drug charge on top of the one already pending. The D. A. published his mug shot in a public announcement of twenty-two arrests as part of a “multi-jurisdictional drug sweep” in Westchester County. Mount Vernon’s mayor held a press conference to show off the faces of the suspects. Antonini stood behind him, his gold detective badge strung around his neck.

After Seward’s mother passed away, in 2019, he turned himself in and was promptly charged with a third felony, for bail jumping. The drug charges that had gotten him into trouble were dropped, but he pleaded guilty to the bail-jumping charge.

By 2018, Bovell had amassed more than thirteen hours of recorded conversations with at least four colleagues, three of whom had been on or would be assigned to the narcotics unit. Police leadership had no idea.

Instead, the department had been battling with Bovell, first over medical bills he’d accrued in the wake of his knee injury—he thought they should pay, and they’d had enough—then over whether he was mentally fit to serve. He’d sued for denial of benefits, but also so much more: wild accusations of wrongdoing by his colleagues, involving everything from racial discrimination to brutality and corruption. The case was dismissed.

In 2018, Bovell hired a new lawyer, Joseph Murray, a former NYPD officer with the fists of an amateur boxer, which he once was. At first, he approached the litigious officer with caution.

But then Murray heard the tapes.

In one recording, from 2017, an officer named Avion Lee described a suspect who was beaten so badly during his arrest that she thought his jaw may have been broken. Her sergeant told the officers who’d been on the scene to fabricate having seen the man involved in a hand-to-hand drug sale. In another, Allen Patterson, a detective who’d served alongside Bovell on the narcotics unit, said he saw Antonini assault a suspect at the station. When Patterson reported the incident, the department replied with an offer to transfer out of the squad.

But to Murray, it was Bovell’s recordings of John Campo, an officer who’d also been on the narcotics unit, that stood out. In one call, Campo said the unit allowed certain informants to sell drugs as “a monopoly.” In another, the officer claimed that some members of the unit carried drugs and paraphernalia such as crack pipes, presumably for when they didn’t find such evidence on suspects. They called it, he said, the rainy-day fund. Campo even admitted to once safeguarding a bundle of crack for a confidential informant, then returning it after an arrest. (In a phone call, Fegan, the unit’s leader, denied Campo’s claims. “Nobody is allowed to sell drugs on the street in Mount Vernon,” he said.) “Here’s an active member of the narcotics unit witnessing all of this and sharing all of this,” Murray told me. “My jaw hit the floor.” He took Bovell’s case.

In the summer of 2018, Bovell and Murray heard from prosecutors for the Westchester County district attorney, Anthony Scarpino. The D. A. had received one of Bovell’s complaints and wanted to hear more.

Seated at a conference table at the D. A.’s office, in White Plains, Bovell told prosecutors about the tapes, describing Antonini’s brutality and the impunity offered to select drug dealers. The D. A.’s staff seemed interested and asked to hear more. Bovell mailed a USB drive with hours of recorded conversations to the D. A. A month later, an investigator confirmed that they’d received the recordings and had begun listening to them.

Then nothing happened.

The city’s political establishment was cannibalizing itself. It was the summer of 2019, and the mayor had recently pled guilty to misusing campaign funds. He said the conviction should not preclude him from serving in office, but Mount Vernon’s charter stated otherwise, so the city council swore in its president as acting mayor. For weeks, both men claimed to be mayor. When the acting mayor’s appointed police commissioner showed up for his first day on the job, he was arrested for trespassing by officers now ostensibly under his authority. He was the fifth commissioner in as many years.

Eventually, the elected, disgraced mayor stepped down, only to reveal that his replacement had mortgaged his home to pay a $1 million bond for a drug kingpin in Manhattan.

Around that time, Bovell returned to work on light duty. He was known as the guy who had named names in a lawsuit. It wasn’t long before he sensed retaliation.

Once, Bovell discovered a white rubber rat in front of his locker. The next day, his lock was smeared with white paste. Soon after, in the middle of announcing an assignment at roll call, a sergeant said, “412 South Second, there’s rats. Not like the rats here at headquarters.” Bovell says the sergeant gestured in his direction. Snickers rose from across the room.

Afterward, Bovell called Murray to tell him what had happened. Murray said the time had come to release the tapes. Bovell had risked his career, and possibly more, and the D. A. hadn’t done a thing.

Bovell says he didn’t want to go to the press. Cops don’t do that. But he felt as if he had a target on his back and that he’d run out of options.

I bumped into Joseph Murray In October 2019, at a police-reform rally I was covering for the public radio station WNYC. We’d never met, but we’d talked over the phone for another story I was reporting. During our call, he’d mentioned a crazy case he was working on, involving corruption in Mount Vernon. Outside the rally, I asked him about the case. We stayed in touch.

After months of poring over Bovell’s recorded conversations, I focused first on the allegations regarding the narcotics unit’s falsified drug charges. The claims themselves were explosive, especially coming from officers who didn’t know they were being recorded. But what stood out to me was the D. A.’s apparent lack of interest in investigating the officers whom colleagues had associated with brutal and often illegal behavior. I found dozens of cases involving arrests by Antonini and others mentioned on the tapes that the D. A. had continued to pursue. Whenever I called the defendants, almost all of whom are Black, or their lawyers, no one knew what I was talking about. When I reached out to the city and the D. A. for comment, neither seemed to recognize the gravity of the accusations, which could call into question hundreds of convictions. An official with the D. A.’s office told me that if citizens had concerns over wrongful convictions, they could file a complaint for review. How they expected citizens to know about Bovell’s tapes was another question, since the D. A. had quietly shut down the investigation into the recordings without disclosing them to the public.

Last June, my first story on Bovell’s taped conversations came out. It sparked public outrage. Congressional and statehouse leaders released letters expressing their concerns. Local officials scrambled to address the situation. Mount Vernon’s new mayor, Shawyn Patterson-Howard—who’d won in a landslide against the acting mayor—tweeted that “bad cops must go” and that she “wouldn’t stand for it.” In a public statement, Anthony Scarpino, the D. A., who was up for reelection, claimed that his office had followed through “with an exhaustive investigation into every allegation made on the tapes.” (Later, a D. A. spokesperson told me, “The allegations that District Attorney Scarpino and this office are not conducting a full and thorough investigation are false” and the office “will not jeopardize the work by commenting publicly on the substance of the investigation.”)

Though the D. A. had prosecuted a couple of Mount Vernon officers, neither from the narcotics unit, Bovell’s tapes came up repeatedly in election debates and local media coverage. Three weeks later, Scarpino lost the primary to a former federal prosecutor named Mimi Rocah, who’d campaigned on her predecessor’s inaction.

In September, Glenn Scott, a veteran of the force, whom Patterson-Howard had appointed as police commissioner, told me that he’d dissolved the beleaguered unit of the MVPD. “The narcotics unit will not be reinstituted until all deficiencies are corrected,” he said. The following week, the department announced that it was investigating Antonini, who was put on desk duty until further notice. In a statement to Esquire, a city spokesperson said that the mayor and her administration are “committed to building a police department that is not only a prime representation of the community that it polices but is also held accountable.” He continued, “We look forward to partnering with the new district attorney to continue our investigation into past allegations of abuse and misconduct in the Mount Vernon Police Department.”

The city and the D. A. may not be alone in probing Mount Vernon’s former narcotics squad. The day my first article on the tapes was published, the chief of the White Plains division of the U. S. attorney’s office reached out to Joseph Murray. The federal prosecutor asked for Bovell’s recordings. As of press time, the status of that investigation is unknown.

Despite all that Bovell’s recordings revealed, much in Mount Vernon remains the same.

Though the narcotics unit is defunct, last year the department launched a violent-crimes unit, which deploys the same plainclothes-policing model as its predecessor.

Bovell remains a patrol officer—he’s still employed, but he hasn’t risen in rank in fourteen years. Patterson-Howard, the mayor, has not met with Bovell, and Scott, the commissioner, has disparaged him and his efforts in public forums. Each day that Bovell walks into work, he risks running into the colleagues he exposed.

Camilo Antonini declined to discuss the allegations against him. “Obviously I’m not going to comment on anything Mr. Joseph has put out there,” he told Esquire. He’s still on desk duty. Yes, he’s off the street. But he still collects a paycheck. So does Sean Fegan.

Of the officers Bovell recorded, John Campo, who’d safeguarded a dealer’s contraband, was suspended without pay in November. He’d talked the most on the tapes, and he was the only officer to confess to his own misconduct.

Avion Lee went on to be assigned to the narcotics unit and later became a detective. She and Allen Patterson remain on the force.

The fourth colleague Bovell recorded, a sergeant named Aristotle Evans, was sued by another officer for sexual abuse. The case was dismissed, but Evans was demoted. He, too, is still getting paid.

Some residents are hopeful that Mimi Rocah, the county’s new district attorney, will follow through with her campaign promise to take on the alleged corruption in Mount Vernon. A D. A. spokesperson told Esquire that had Rocah been in office at the time, “she would have ensured that the investigation was treated with greater urgency than happened under the prior administration.” In a departure from the office under Scarpino, the spokesperson said that “the investigation is high priority and ongoing.” The shadow of a federal probe still hangs over the department.

After falling out with his daughter in the wake of the raid on her apartment, Alan Seward has reconciled with her. He says he’s stopped selling drugs: “You get tired of going to jail.” He’s trying his hand at video production and design. His lawsuit is still pending; the city has signaled it will move to dismiss it.

Reginald Gallman’s lawsuit is ongoing, too. The incident at his aunt’s apartment was hardly his first run-in with law enforcement, but this time, he says, it was unwarranted. He’s particularly upset by the actions he alleges Antonini took that night. “Nah, he’s not gonna be beating up on me for nothing because I don’t wanna work for him,” Gallman told me when we first spoke. “If you catch me, you catch me. I’m gonna do my time, go upstate, do what I gotta do. I broke the law, okay? But you’re not gonna exceed the law and do what you wanna do to me and think I gonna help you.” (The city and the department have denied wrongdoing.)

As for Campbell, the raid convinced her that she had to leave Mount Vernon. Her home for thirteen years is now inseparable from the face and smell of Camilo Antonini. “Mount Vernon is so dark, I don’t even go there anymore,” she told me. “I still see his face to this day.” She took her two cats and left the rest behind.

Campbell says that in many ways, her life has improved. She’s married now, and she’s kicked her addiction. Still, she has nightmares. Sometimes even the television is too much. “I don’t watch scary movies anymore,” she says. “Certain shows I can’t watch, like certain scenes where a man is close up on a woman, like he’s threatening her. It affects me. I get upset. I want to cry. I can’t sleep.”

Campbell wonders how many people like her must come forward for their stories to be believed. “This is not like it’s one or two people,” she says. “It’s a lot of us. We all can’t be lying.” your social media marketing partner