Late at night on September 22, 2014, at a housing project basketball court in Brooklyn, a white cop pushes a black man against a chain link fence. They stand face-to-face, the black man, Lamard Joye, a little taller than the cop, William Montemarino. Joye wears a hooded sweatshirt, printed collage-style with pictures of the Notorious B.I.G.; Montemarino's in a short-sleeved NYPD uniform, his round stomach stretching the fabric. Both men are bald.
"Look," Joye says with his hands dutifully raised in the air. "Look. You see this? You see this?"
He is talking not to Montemarino, but to the person behind Montemarino, the person recording everything on his cell phone. Two months earlier, a much more famous cell phone video recorded a different white cop choking an unarmed black man to death on a Staten Island sidewalk. On the night of September 22, Joye couldn't know that a grand jury would later fail to indict anyone for that death, but I imagine when he did find out he was filled with disgust but completely unsurprised, or perhaps I'm just projecting my own feelings here.
"You see this?" he says again.
In the course of searching through Joye's pockets, Montemarino pulls out a wad of cash and holds it behind him.
"Give me my fucking money, man," Joye says. He pushes himself off the fence. "Give me my money, man. Give me my money."
Montemarino is moving backwards. When Joye grabs him by the arm, up near the badge on his sleeve, Montemarino pepper sprays him in the face. No matter how many times I watch the video, I can't ever catch the moment when Montemarino reaches for the pepper spray can. Maybe he had it in his hand the whole time, ready to go. The first dose seems to have little effect on Joye, whose adrenaline is surely pumping, but the second spraying has him flailing out of the frame, stumbling towards the pavement. He runs off, but the video stays riveted on Montemarino.
"He just stole his money," the cameraman says. "He just stole his money!"
"Word?" says a skinny woman. She steps right into Montemarino's face, where Joye stood moments earlier, as if she were his understudy. Turns out she's his sister, a professional basketball player in Europe. In the video, ever the athlete, she holds an enormous plastic water bottle. "Word?" she says again. "Word?"
"He just stole his money. That's robbery!"
A new, louder voice asks the cop, "How you gonna take his money?"
"Get his badge number," says the cameraman. "Get his badge number!"
"Say your name," the sister orders Montemarino.
Things become especially confusing here. So many different voices are shouting. The video gets jumpy, the cell phone probably shaking in the guy's hands. Despite or perhaps because of the late hour, the basketball court blazes with light, which occasionally blanches the camera's lens. Joye's sister is either backing away from Montemarino as he closes in on her, or Montemarino is trying to get away from her but she keeps cutting him off. Either way she continues to shout into his face. She wants his name. She wants his badge number. All that information is on the shield he has pinned to his shirt, over his heart, but when she reaches out for it — or maybe she just leans towards it, to get a better look — he slaps her hand away.
"I'm not touching you," she says. "I'm not," but she can't finish the thought because now she too has been pepper sprayed. "Oh my God," she says.
"Look," says the cameraman. Everyone and everything has gone suddenly quiet. When Montemarino turns towards him, the cameraman retreats. "Oh," he says softly. "Look."
The video ends there. A few weeks before its online premiere, it went to the Brooklyn District Attorney's chief civil rights prosecutor and the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau. The Daily News broke the story first with the lengthy headline, "SEE IT: NYPD cop allegedly took more than $1K in cash from Brooklyn construction worker's pocket during stop-and-frisk." New York magazine was more direct: "NYPD Steals Cash, Pepper Sprays Victims."
The articles provided contextual information missing from the 35-second video. According to a police spokeswoman, "The incident was precipitated by a call of a man with a gun. When officers arrived at the scene, they encountered numerous people at the location." The nature of that encounter, however, remains unclear. Some of the cops — there were at least five of them — started writing summonses for marijuana possession and disorderly conduct, the latter an intentionally vague ticket frequently used to punish ball-busters. Joye alleges the cops started roughing up a friend of his, which prompted Joye to ask, "Is this necessary?" Then, as he was pushed up against the fence, "You see this? You see this?" Then, "Give me my fucking money."
A thousand dollars seems like a lot of cash to carry at 12:20 in the morning, but Joye claims it was actually more than that, closer to $1,300. The Daily News quoted Joye's lawyer, Robert Marinelli, saying, "I believe that this officer made an assumption that any money Mr. Joye possessed was obtained illegally and therefore he would not report the theft. This assumption was wrong. Mr. Joye is a hardworking taxpayer deserving respect." Apparently Joye had withdrawn the money because it was his birthday and he planned to take his wife out on the town to celebrate. A different news article, however, reported that it was his wife's birthday. The Post made no mention at all of going out on the town, whatever that might mean, but said that the couple had planned to go on a vacation and were leaving early that morning. It doesn't matter. To verify the hefty withdrawal, Joye's lawyer provided the Brooklyn DA with pay stubs, bank records, and visual evidence of Joye collecting his money at a local check-cashing joint.
After reading the articles, scrolling through the outrage in the articles' comments sections, and continually rewatching the video, I called a friend of mine, an NYPD detective who over the last few years had provided me with countless anecdotes, insights, and corrections as I was writing my second novel, Uncle Janice, about the undercover narcotics officers (nickname: uncles) in my hometown of Queens. I asked him if he'd seen the video. He hadn't, but after I'd described it to him in obsessive detail he offered some alternative narratives to the one I'd already decided on.
Montemarino pushed Joye up against the fence to keep him away from whatever was going on outside the video's frame. Or Joye got pushed up against the fence because Montemarino was annoyed or scared or wanted to make an example out of him and was going to arrest him for disorderly conduct. Searching pockets is standard procedure for an arrest, although Montemarino probably should've cuffed him first, although that might have inflamed the crowd even more. Or maybe Montemarino was searching Joye's pockets because he matched the gunman's description, which he in fact did, although that description was of course vague enough as to be essentially useless — black man, dark pants, dark sweatshirt, presumably with two legs and two arms, probably somewhere between four and seven feet tall — although perhaps that description was so vague because the caller didn't get a very good look at this gunman, or maybe the gunman didn't even exist, maybe the caller was just a cranky neighbor tired of the loud ruckus in the basketball court at 12:20 a.m. on a Sunday night.
For my friend, the cop putting the money into his own pocket seemed like a non-issue. What else was he supposed to do with it? When he brings Joye to the station, Montemarino is supposed to voucher the money — and anything else he found in Joye's pockets — as evidence. But Montemarino never had a chance to bring Joye to the precinct because Joye ran away immediately after getting pepper sprayed. It's also possible Montemarino was planning to give the money back directly to Joye, without even making an arrest, but Joye had reacted with immediate aggression. To be fair to Joye, that immediate aggression might be the byproduct of the police's immediate aggression, both that night and all the countless nights before that one. To be fair to Montemarino, he hadn't even put the money in his pocket yet when Joye grabbed his arm.
With characteristic indelicacy, I asked my friend if he felt inclined to give Montemarino the benefit of the doubt because of some sort of blue blood loyalty to a fellow cop. My friend acknowledged the possibility. But instead of offering an argument on the moral superiority of police officers, he instead gave me a lesson straight out of Econ 101, that human actions are primarily motivated by self-interest.
"I guess I'm just skeptical," he said, "that a cop would risk losing his pension over $1,300."
I thought back to an earlier conversation we'd had, before I'd even started working on Uncle Janice. While drinking pints at a bar, I'd asked him what was the scariest part of his job, expecting him to say getting shot at, but instead he told me he lived in constant fear that his bosses might one day blame him for something he didn't actually do. Working the streets was apparently less frightening than navigating office politics: the clueless coworkers, the bullying bosses, the unreasonable demands of countless faceless bureaucrats. He was, I suppose, reminding me that cops are human beings, something that's relatively easy to forget. For many of us, our daily interaction with the police comes either through television, where cops are make-believe characters with make-believe backstories, or through newspaper articles, where real-life cops tend to appear only when they're doing decidedly inhuman things, like NYPD Officer Justin Volpe, who sodomized a prisoner with a broom handle in 1997, or the more recent example of NYPD Officer Gilberto Valle, who was charged with plotting to kidnap, kill, and eat his estranged wife.
But media depictions of the socioeconomically disadvantaged — especially socioeconomically disadvantaged people of color — are even worse, even less complicated and more dehumanizing. And those depictions might at least partially explain how grand juries could fail to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Internal Affairs eventually cleared Montemarino of any wrongdoing. After leaving the Surfside Gardens basketball courts, he apparently went back to the precinct and vouchered Joye's property: a cell phone, which I hadn't even seen him take, and $62 in cash. Joye hired a lawyer instead of claiming his possessions, perhaps because he was afraid of getting pepper sprayed again, or because of the preexisting warrant for his arrest for driving without a license, or because he was hoping for a bigger payday of $1,238. His pay stubs and withdrawal slip were dated a week prior to the incident. Of course that doesn't mean he didn't have all that money on him that night, or that the cop didn't steal it, or that there isn't a cover-up. Whomever we believe, though, probably says more about our own prejudices than anything else. Or maybe "prejudices" is the wrong word. Maybe I mean "expectations." Or "experiences." Or "lack of experiences." I don't know. The only thing I'm certain of is that Joye's lawyer is exactly right when he said, "An incident like this would never occur in a more affluent section of the city."