© Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Justice Thomas D. Raffaele said a police officer in Queens, enraged at a jeering crowd, hit him in the throat on Friday.
Thomas D. Raffaele, a 69-year-old justice of the New York State Supreme Court, encountered a chaotic scene while walking down a Queens street with a friend: Two uniformed police officers stood over a shirtless man lying facedown on the pavement. The man’s hands were cuffed behind his back and he was screaming. A crowd jeered at the officers.
The judge, concerned the crowd was becoming unruly, called 911 and reported that the officers needed help.
But within minutes, he said, one of the two officers became enraged – and the judge became his target. The officer screamed and cursed at the onlookers, some of whom were complaining about what they said was his violent treatment of the suspect, and then he focused on Justice Raffaele, who was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. The judge said the officer rushed forward and, using the upper edge of his hand, delivered a sharp blow to the judge’s throat that was like what he learned when he was trained in hand-to-hand combat in the Army.
The episode, Friday morning just after midnight – in which the judge says his initial complaint about the officer was dismissed by a sergeant, the ranking supervisor at the scene – is now the focus of investigations by the police Internal Affairs Bureau and the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
The judge said he believed the officer also hit one or two other people during the encounter on 74th Street near 37th Road, a busy commercial strip in Jackson Heights. But he said he could not be sure, because the blow to his throat sent him reeling back and he then doubled over in pain.
“I’ve always had profound respect for what they do,” Justice Raffaele said of the police, noting that he was “always very supportive” of the department during the more than 20 years he served on Community Board 3 in Jackson Heights before becoming a judge. At one point in the early 1990s, he added, he helped organize a civilian patrol in conjunction with the police. “And this I thought was very destructive.”
The justice, who sits in the Matrimonial part in State Supreme Court in Jamaica, Queens, was elected to the Civil Court in 2005 and the State Supreme Court in 2009. Justice Raffaele was among the judges around New York State who volunteered to perform weddings on the Sunday last summer when New York’s same-sex marriage law went into effect. The judge’s description of the confrontation and its aftermath, which he provided in a series of interviews, was corroborated by two people he knows who described the encounter in separate interviews.
Justice Raffaele and one of the men, Muhammad Rashid, who runs a tutoring center near where the encounter occurred, said they were on the street at that hour because the judge had spent most of that day and night cleaning out his parents’ house and Mr. Rashid had just helped him move two tables; he donated them to the tutoring center.
The judge said his parents had just moved to Houston; he had taken them to the airport that morning and the house’s new owner was to take possession the next day.
The judge said he was in “a lot of pain” and went with Mr. Rashid to the emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital Center, where a doctor examined his throat by snaking a tube with a camera on the end through his nose and down his throat to determine whether his trachea had been damaged. The doctor, he said, found no damage; Justice Raffaele was released and told to see his personal doctor for follow-up care.
When they first came upon the crowd, the judge said, he was immediately concerned for the officers and called 911. After he made the call, he said, he saw that one of the officers – the one who he said later attacked him – was repeatedly dropping his knee into the handcuffed man’s back.
His actions, the judge said, were inflaming the crowd, some of whom had been drinking. But among others who loudly expressed their concern, he said, was a woman who identified herself as a registered nurse; she was calling to the officer, warning that he could seriously hurt the unidentified man, who an official later said was not charged.
Justice Raffaele said that after the officer struck him and he regained his composure, he asked another officer who was in charge and was directed to a sergeant, who, like the officer who hit him, was from the 115th Precinct. He told the sergeant that he wanted to make a complaint.
The sergeant, he said, stepped away and spoke briefly with some other officers – several of whom the judge said had witnessed their colleague strike him – and returned to tell the judge that none of them knew whom he was talking about. As the sergeant spoke to the other officers, the judge said, the officer who hit him was walking away.
At the hospital, he said, he saw another sergeant from the 115th Precinct, who took his complaint. He also telephoned the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau. He said he was interviewed on Friday by a lieutenant and a sergeant from a special unit in the bureau called Group 54, which investigates complaints of excessive force.
Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said in an e-mail that all force complaints, whether they involve serious injuries or not, are referred to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that investigates allegations of police misconduct that does not rise to the level of a crime. The department’s Internal Affairs Bureau investigates complaints of excessive force that involve serious injuries.
“In this instance,” he said, Internal Affairs “is reviewing the complaint because it was brought to its attention by the judge, not because of the level of injury.”
He did not respond to an e-mail with other questions about the episode.
Police investigators, apparently from Internal Affairs, visited a number of shops along 74th Street on Sunday, seeking to determine whether any had security cameras that might have recorded a fight Thursday night involving a police officer and two men, said Sunil Patel, the owner of Alankar Jewelers.
He said that he had security cameras, but that they did not capture any images of the confrontation because the store’s security gate blocks their view when the shop is closed.
The office of the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, is working with the Internal Affairs Bureau on the investigation, an official there said.
The administrative judge for civil matters for the State Supreme Court in Queens, Jeremy S. Weinstein, who oversees the court where Justice Raffaele sits, said he was surprised to learn of the encounter because of what he said was the judge’s personality.
“I think, universally felt, that he is one of the most soft-spoken, thoughtful, decent human beings around,” Justice Weinstein said. “I think his temperament is admired by certainly his colleagues in the bar and I believe the community that he served.”
Asked whether he intended to sue, Justice Raffaele said, “At this point, no, I don’t.”
He added: “I do feel that it’s important for this person to be disciplined. I don’t know if he should be an officer or not – what he was doing was so violent.”