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The NYPD’s most-complained-about cop speaks out in defense of aggressive arrests

Lt. Eric Dym, who retired in the face of stiff penalties, asks critics: “What do you want to see?” They have some words for him.

October 24, 2022 Yoav Gonen, THE CITY
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The NYPD’s most-complained about cop — who accumulated 56 substantiated allegations of misconduct against him by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) before retiring last month — is speaking out in defense of proactive policing by the anti-crime units that were reconstituted this year by Mayor Eric Adams.

As THE CITY reported in September, Lt. Eric Dym, a former U.S. Marine who spent 18 years in the police department, was hit with numerous allegations over eight incidents between November 2018 and June 2020 — including utilizing improper force, multiple instances of pointing his gun at someone and making a false official statement.

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He’s also been named in more than a dozen lawsuits for which city taxpayers have paid out over $1.5 million, and has been captured in a number of videos that show him punching people in the face and head.

Earlier this month, in a twopart appearance on the podcast “New York’s Finest: Retired & Unfiltered,” Dym told host John D. Macari — also a retired NYPD lieutenant — that the slew of complaints that were substantiated against him over the past few years arose largely from the rough-and-tumble nature of proactive policing in high-crime areas.

The interview serves as a rare, unvarnished glimpse into the mind of an NYPD officer regarding a controversial policing unit and his own actions — including a significant number of incidents that advocates for reform say can cause lasting harm to both individuals and communities.

Over almost four hours, Dym, 42, portrayed himself as a police officer motivated by a desire to help the public, doing what he was trained to do and what the public and his bosses expected of him — nearly always in encounters with suspects in serious crimes such as shootings and robberies.

He argued that while the techniques for arresting suspects could appear “ugly,” including punches to the face and head to gain compliance, they were often necessary.

“We’re seeking out those in possession of illegal firearms and those who did shootings. So in many cases, they’re going to fight because they don’t want to go to prison for a long period of time. They have to give up maybe family, kids, or a job — so they don’t want to go in,” Dym told THE CITY in an interview.

“And it’s human nature at that point: It’s fight or flight. And unfortunately, when we form a tactical plan, and we do a good job of isolating that perpetrator, their only option is to fight,” he added. “And our only option is to keep each other safe.”

Business as usual

But criminal justice reformers who listened to the podcast said they heard someone too singularly focused on arrests as a path to public safety and dismissive of concerns about the constitutional rights of those arrested.

They also balked at Dym’s dismissal of oversight by the CCRB and other bodies, which they deem essential to maintaining a check on police powers to deprive people of their freedom.

Dym offered a perspective on his career that contrasted sharply with that of police reform groups that have criticized the often aggressive policing of the NYPD’s plainclothes anti-crime units, which were formally disbanded under former Mayor Bill de Blasio in mid-2020 and were reconstituted by Mayor Eric Adams in February as Neighborhood Safety Teams.

The units had a reputation for packing burly officers into unmarked cars that would circle the neighborhood before the doors suddenly flew open and the men jumped out to chase down people they targeted — at times incorrectly — as potential criminals.

In some instances, anti-crime cops have killed their targets while trying to detain them — as was the case with Antonio Williams, who was fatally shot by police in September 2019.

“He was just standing by a mailbox waiting for a cab, and they just jumped out like cowboys in the middle of the night,” his father, Shawn Williams, recently told New York magazine. “Playing judge, jury and executioner.”

After de Blasio faced a mini-revolt from NYPD officers over his response to the police killing of Eric Garner, his response to policing controversies was to back the NYPD against criticism the vast majority of the time. But when de Blasio announced that the city was disbanding the anti-crime units in June 2020, even he called their tactics “overly aggressive.”

Dym said the only actual change sparked by de Blasio was that the officers went from wearing plainclothes to uniforms, while the work of the units continued as usual.

Asked about Dym’s claims, an NYPD spokesperson shared a video of former NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea announcing the transition of officers from anti-crime units.

Constitutional policing

As a lieutenant since January 2015, Dym got to attend the NYPD’s notorious CompStat meetings at 1 Police Plaza, where precinct commanders and other personnel take turns on the hot seat over results in their coverage areas.

But even as top police brass and de Blasio were for years publicly touting a kinder, gentler approach to policing known as “neighborhood policing,” which brought back the concept of the beat cop tasked with knowing community members by name, the marching orders did not change for anti-crime cops, according to Dym.

“The leadership was indicating to do policing as we did — it didn’t seem to change. We still had that broken windows ideology,” Dym told THE CITY. “But yet, when they would talk with the public, it was all about these neighborhood coordination officers and this type of policing,” he added. “And really there was a dichotomy between them.”

Jennvine Wong, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project, said that while Dym seemed to genuinely want to help people, his approach was colored by seeing bagging bad guys as the only path to public safety.

She said it was part of a wider cultural problem at the NYPD and other police departments where the quick-and-dirty solutions get glorified, while the harm caused to communities gets ignored.

“It’s not enough to change the policies — it’s about training these officers on how to police constitutionally, and it’s really about changing their views and to change that warrior cop mentality,” said Wong.

Reasons not to engage

Since gaining the ability to prosecute its own cases at administrative trials overseen by the NYPD in 2012, the CCRB has managed to get only one NYPD member terminated: Daniel Pantaleo, who was involved in the killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island in 2014.

With the commissioner of the NYPD having final say over the disciplinary outcome — and even the ability to overrule guilty findings by the administrative judge — the CCRB’s recommendations for penalties against officers have been downgraded or rejected more than 70% of the time in serious cases, according to a 2020 analysis by The New York Times.

Last year, following pressure from the City Council, the NYPD implemented a new disciplinary matrix that lays out the range of prescribed penalties for misconduct. The police commissioner is required to explain in writing any departure from the standards. But the commissioner still has final say on discipline — a power that advocates have pressed to remove.

The widespread use of body-worn cameras by police officers in New York City has also helped the CCRB reach more definitive conclusions: Between May 2017 and June 2019, the agency closed 76% of cases with video footage based on the evidence, as compared to a 39% closure rate on the merits when no video was available.

Dym said the scrutiny that comes both from body-worn cameras and from the CCRB has had a deterrent effect on the behavior of officers, particularly those likely to accumulate complaints because of their work in anti-crime units.

He said one of his best sergeants transferred to operations to sit behind a desk rather than face CCRB probes.

“In the last year, I myself, I’ve observed numerous opportunities to conduct a stop where I’m confident I would obtain an illegal firearm, but I shied away from it because the amount of charges were mounting up,” Dym told Macari.

Array of incidents

Among the 52 allegations that the CCRB has substantiated against Dym in incidents that took place since November 2018 are seven instances of improper force, four instances of “gun pointed” (all four in one case), two complaints of restricting someone’s breathing, one charge of making a false official statement and one of using a nightstick as a club against protesters.

The use of the nightstick occurred during a brutal police corralling and mass arrest of protesters in The Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood on June 4, 2020, where, according to the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, cops violated international human rights laws.

Dym said he cut a deal with CCRB prosecutors as he was retiring — after rejecting the first offer they made — that would cost him 64 vacation days for five of the cases, while three cases would be closed upon his departure from the force.

While there’s limited information publicly available about those eight substantiated cases, a summary of one of two that went to administrative trial earlier is critical of how Dym and other officers treated an individual after he was handcuffed and detained.

In that 2019 case, the CCRB found that “Lt. Dym was captured on video footage repeatedly punching a handcuffed prisoner inside the cell area of the PSA 7 stationhouse, including while he was sitting atop the prisoner on the ground and while other officers were holding the prisoner down.”

THE CITY wasn’t able to obtain the CCRB’s full findings in that case ahead of publication.

Dym told THE CITY that the administrative judge found him not guilty in that case earlier this year, and that it was a good example of appearances not matching reality.

He noted that even though the prisoner was handcuffed at the time, the suspect had tried to head-butt officers, was resisting attempts to be strip-searched and was suspected of having a concealed weapon on him.

A CCRB spokesperson confirmed that Dym was found not guilty at the NYPD’s administrative trial.

Lives on the line

Among the remaining six cases the CCRB substantiated against Dym was one stemming from an incident on Nov. 1, 2018 — which Dym described as the violent arrest of a shooting suspect who had a history of resisting arrests that included knocking a Manhattan precinct lieutenant unconscious.

The CCRB investigation summary notes at one point in the melee — during which an officer fired a Taser at the suspect and the suspect bit two officers — the suspect “stretches his left hand out from within the dogpile, and a set of handcuffs dangles from his wrist.”

It notes that one of the officers in the scrum grabs the suspect’s arm and immobilizes it.

“Lt. Dym then punches [redacted] about the face or head approximately 14 more times, over the course of approximately 17 seconds, before taking out his own set of handcuffs and placing them on [redacted’s] right wrist,” the report said.

The memo details significant injuries to the suspect shown in an arrest photo, including “a bandage on the left side of his head, significant swelling about his right orbital, and streaks of blood apparently coming from wounds on the right side of his face.”

The suspect’s eye appears to be swollen shut in a second photo, taken the next day by the Department of Correction, the memo said.

In his interview with Macari, Dym said CCRB investigators criticized him for not ceasing the punches once another officer grabbed the suspect’s arm. But he said they watched the action unfold by slowing the video down to half speed — something the CCRB report confirms — which he called an unfair way to review real-time decisions in a violent scrum.

He said that in the tumult he hadn’t seen anyone grab the suspect’s arm.

“They wrote that Lieutenant Dym was exonerated up to a point. And at some point, that if Lieutenant Dym felt it was necessary to get the police officers safely from underneath the perpetrator, that deploying punches was not the way to achieve that goal,” Dym said on the podcast. “And they make it sound like achieving a goal, you know, that I want to enhance my career,” he added.

Dym went on: “We’re talking about lives on the line, safety, for myself, and the cops. And they forget that we’re human. And we all have that fear factor.”

Legal restrictions

A CCRB database shows the case stemming from the November 2018 incident was settled with Dym ahead of his retirement with the loss of 10 vacation days — out of the 64 total Dym lost.

Jose Lasalle, who as a co-founder of the group Copwatch Patrol Unit has for years kept tabs on Dym and his anti-crime unit that covers public housing areas in two precincts in The Bronx, characterized Dym’s do-gooder version of his career as “full of crap.”

“He knew if he did not retire his ass was going to receive some serious discipline, charges and fired,” said Lasalle, who won a nearly $900,000 wrongful arrest lawsuit in 2019 against Dym and other members of the PSA 7 precinct.

“In his sick mind he really believes he did nothing wrong,” added Lasalle.

On the podcast, Dym characterized Lasalle as spreading a “one-sided ideology” that’s critical of policing. Yet he at one point said he thinks many of the anti-police advocates genuinely believe their work is helping the public — even though he disagrees.

Dym also said he’s at a loss for how critics of the police, including many of the CCRB investigators, would like cops to subdue dangerous people who resist arrest, particularly given the restrictions that have been placed on policing tactics over the years.

This includes the City Council’s passage in 2020 of a ban on chokeholds that made it a misdemeanor offense to restrict someone’s breathing — including by putting pressure on their diaphragm.

“The Taser is not always an effective tool. No one likes to see the baton. Punches are ugly. They don’t want to see chokes. So I ask the public…tell us, what do you want to see?” Dym said on the podcast. “We’re only told what they don’t want to see. But what do you want to see?”

Resisting oversight

Even as the CCRB began substantiating multiple cases each year against Dym, the NYPD veteran said that the police department was awarding him the highest performance evaluations possible.

Wong, of Legal Aid, acknowledged that the NYPD’s culture of rewarding aggressive law enforcement is a significant factor in preventing officers from rethinking their policing approach.

She said the NYPD often diminished the significance of CCRB findings and was internally sending a different message for what it expected from officers on the ground.

“This culture of impunity has existed at NYPD for so long and it’s incredibly hard to root out,” said Wong. “This NYPD undermining of CCRB findings, it just means officers aren’t going to take substantiated CCRB complaints seriously.”

Dym told THE CITY it wasn’t that officers feared termination as a result of CCRB scrutiny, but that having open charges from the board could also derail promotions and transfers.

He said he was passed over for promotion to captain last year because of the cases that were piling up against him.

Dym also said he felt unable to perform policing as he believed was necessary in recent years amid the scrutiny of the CCRB investigators, whom he addressed directly on Macari’s podcast.

“My guys and girls that were on the street, the ones that you’re substantiating complaints against, including myself — we’re the ones that you want to come to your door if, God forbid, you should ever need the police,” Dym said on the podcast.

CCRB spokesperson Clio Calvo-Platero noted instances of external corroboration of the CCRB’s findings: Dym was found guilty in one of the two cases that went to administrative trial earlier this year and pleaded guilty in three of the remaining six cases.

“The CCRB is an independent and impartial agency that investigates misconduct and makes disciplinary recommendations to the Police Commissioner, who has the final disciplinary authority,” she said.

NYCLU Assistant Policy Director Michael Sisitzky added that cops have historically acted like any oversight is too much to bear.

“The problem is not that civilian complaints and our mechanisms for civilian oversight make it impossible for police to do their jobs; the problem is a policing culture that refuses to accept any outside limits on their authority,” he said. “And when that authority includes the power to detain people, remove them from their homes and communities, and to use force and even deadly weapons against them, it is by no means too much to ask that their conduct be subject to oversight.”

Sisitzky added: “We know that the police will not police themselves. An approach that says that officers cannot or will not do their jobs with basic accountability when they break their own rules should compel all New Yorkers to question whether policing is the answer to community safety.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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