Big brother gone awry: undercover policing facing a legitimacy crisis.

AuthorWamsley, Nicholas
PositionNew York
  1. Introduction

    Police departments across the country have embraced undercover policing in recent decades, (1) and the explosion in its use has exposed the need for greater regulation of the process. The following story exemplifies this need. On September 29, 2013, motorcyclists from across New York City hopped onto their bikes and began riding towards the city's center. (2) As they traveled through Brooklyn and Queens, the group's ranks swelled into the hundreds. (3) The event, informally titled "Hollywood's Block Party 2013," is an annual ride that typically begins outside Manhattan and ends in the city center. (4) Riders say the event is organized as a gathering to promote unity and peacefulness within the motorcycle community, but New York police see it as dangerous. (5) Police lament that such rides "get larger every year and more rambunctious," and the NYPD deployed officers at checkpoints around the city in an effort to keep the 2013 Block Party out of the city's center. (6)

    The day of the 2013 ride, a group of participating motorcyclists approached the Brooklyn Bridge and raced through a police checkpoint. (7) As the group continued onto the West Side Highway, several slowed to block off the road in an attempt to prevent other vehicles from colliding with motorcycles. (8) One of the those vehicles was the Range Rover driven by Alexian Lien, a Manhattan executive, who was joined in the car by his wife, Rosalyn Ng, and their two-year-old daughter. (9) The motorcyclists claim Lien was weaving from side to side to get around the group, so they positioned themselves to isolate him from the other cars. (10)

    Christopher Cruz slowed his motorcycle to force Lien to stop, but the Range Rover struck his motorcycle from behind. The impact knocked Cruz to the ground, stopping traffic and instigating a violent chain of events. (11) One biker's GoPro camera captured the events, and the resulting video quickly spread around the Internet. (12) Angered by the bump, nearby motorcyclists pounded on Lien's Range Rover with their helmets and slashed his tires. (13) Lien sped off, running over three bikers and leaving one with serious injuries. (14)

    The motorcyclists pursued Lien down the Henry Hudson Parkway for nearly two miles until they stopped the vehicle. (15) With the Range Rover stationary, one biker, Robert Sims, ripped open the driver's side door, but Lien peeled away, slamming the door as he accelerated. (16)

    Over the next thirteen blocks, Ng placed a panicked 9-1-1 call, reporting the Range Rover's location and that the slashed tires had gone flat. (17) Thirty motorcyclists caught up to the disabled vehicle, and several jumped off their bikes and began beating on the vehicle with their fists and helmets, breaking several windows. (18) After one biker's helmet smashed through the driver's side window, the attackers ripped Lien out of the vehicle and threw him to the ground. (19) As Lien lay on the ground, one of the bikers beat him. (20) As the group attacked Lien, one duo threatened Lien's wife that she was "going to get it too." (21) In the absence of police action, nearby civilians eventually intervened to stop the attack. (22)

    Regardless of whether Lien or the motorcyclists should shoulder more blame, one troubling facet of the incident arose in the weeks following the attack: Wojciech Braszczok (pronounced VOY'-chek BRAZH'-ahk), a detective with the NYPD, was riding with the group that pursued and assaulted Lien. (23) Braszczok is a Mohawk-wearing thirty-two-year-old from Long Island City, Queens, who has been an officer with the NYPD for ten years and an undercover officer for the last five. (24) His principle undercover assignment had placed him deep undercover during the peak of the Occupy Wall Street movement; he "essentially lived like a protestor to provide information to the NYPD," which required, among other actions, participation in demonstrations and meetings. (25) Braszczok worked undercover in the NYPD's Organized Crime Intelligence Division. (26)

    Little is known about Braszczok, except through his active social media presence. (27) He used his Twitter account to further the appearance of his involvement in the Occupy movement, (28) but the rest of his online activity was of a more narcissistic and unseemly nature. He used the handle "evovillen" on Twitter, Instagram, Photobucket, online forums, and online dating sites. (29) His pages contained explicit photographs of many women, explicit photographs of himself, and photographs of his motorcycle and other vehicles. (30) Not only did Braszczok's online presence depict him as a disreputable individual, it showed he was a careless police officer. For example, he had images of his personal vehicles plastered across webpages affiliated with his undercover identity and used the same online handle for both personal and undercover use. (31) Additionally, Braszczok listed "law enforcement" as his occupation on a dating site on which he used his "evovillen" handle, the same handle under which he posted items intended to support his appearance as a member of the Occupy movement. (32) On another social media site, Braszczok actually admitted to being a police officer while posting as "evovillen." (33) Braszczok's online activities portrayed a self-involved individual who lived and worked carelessly. These characteristics, along with his unnecessary participation in violent criminal activity, suggest Braszczok may exemplify several psychological traits associated with or elicited by undercover work. (34)

    News of Braszczok's involvement did not break until well after the attack because he delayed reporting that he was on the ride, and when he finally admitted that he was, he initially claimed that he "was not at the scene when the driver got beat up." (35) However, according to prosecutors, Braszczok punched out the back window on the Range Rover, exposing the backseat where the two-year-old was seated, kicked a door, and was altogether an "active participant" in the attack. (36) Video evidence shows Braszczok smashing the window but does not show him participating in the physical attack on Lien. (37)

    How did Braszczok get himself into this situation, and why did he not stop the attack? Braszczok claims to have been participating in the ride along with "other cops from [his] crew," as part of the New Rochelle Front Line Soldiers, the motorcycle group whose emblem is emblazoned on Braszczok's vest in the video footage. (38) He originally justified his failure to act by claiming he did not have his gun and badge. (39) He later supplemented this defense by citing the large number of people he would have had to single-handedly pacify, as well as his late arrival on the scene. (40) He also cited concern with blowing his cover as a reason for not intervening. (41) Although undercover officers act "only in rare circumstances" (42) if they see a crime being committed, none of the factors asserted by Braszczok would have prevented him from calling 9-1-1, an action he failed to take. (43)

    On October 11, 2013, a grand jury in Manhattan criminal court indicted eleven bikers for participating in the attack. (44) Braszczok was charged with assault, gang assault, coercion, riot, and criminal mischief. (45) Braszczok has already been formally suspended from the NYPD, (46) but he has pled not guilty to the charges. (47) Two NYPD officers, in addition to Braszczok, were also involved in the incident, and as many as six were riding with the motorcyclists (48)

    Many questions about Braszczok's involvement remain unanswered, but an exploration of the dramatic psychological effects of undercover work on the officers who perform it may help explain Braszczok's character and actions. Part II will provide background on undercover policing and problems with its legitimacy; Part III will discuss the psychological impacts of undercover work on undercover officers and the systemic problems within officer selection, training, and guidelines that produce those impacts; and Part IV will address several potential solutions to these systemic problems that could help preserve the undercover system's legitimacy.

    n. Development of Undercover Policing

    The development of undercover policing in the United States sheds light on the problems plaguing the undercover system.

    1. The Meaning of " Undercover "

      Police action is either overt or covert, and either deceptive or nondeceptive. The majority of police work is overt and nondeceptive. (49) Typically this means either citizens notify police of a crime or a uniformed officer observes a crime, and uniformed officers follow up on the crime. (50) Alternatively, some police work is overt and deceptive. Overt and deceptive police work could consist of clearly recognizable police officers lying to extract a confession or tricking an attacker into putting down his weapon by claiming he will not be prosecuted. (51) A third category of police activity is covert and nondeceptive. (52) Here, the aim is to go unnoticed by the public but not to deceive the public, and it primarily includes hidden surveillance. (53) A key quality of covert, nondeceptive activity is that it does not affect a suspect's environment, perceptions, or behavior. (54)

      Undercover activity falls into the fourth category: covert and deceptive. (55) An "undercover agent" in the context of police work is a "police officer who gathers evidence of criminal activity without disclosing his or her identity to the suspect." (56) Examples of undercover activity include an officer, pretending he is a drug addict, purchasing drugs from a dealer ("buy and bust") or an officer living amongst a group of individuals suspected to be criminals in order to gather intelligence ("deep cover"). (57) Rather than documenting an offense and then locating the offender, covert and deceptive police work often occurs before an offense has been committed. (58) Although deception is used in normal police work...

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