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A Mount Vernon police officer says secret recordings made inside police headquarters show a sergeant repeatedly referring to him as a “rat.”
Officer Murashea Bovell is a 12-year veteran who sued the department last week, alleging the sergeant’s comments are part of a campaign of retaliation he has faced for blowing the whistle on racism and corruption in the department.
At a roll call meeting on August 7th, Bovell claims he was handing out memo books and radios to his fellow officers when Sergeant Michael Kushnir gestured towards him and referenced a street assignment in Mount Vernon:
“412 South Second, there's rats. Not like the rats here at headquarters,” the sergeant can be heard saying, drawing laughter and jibes from other officers. Moments later, Kushnir continued, “It’s been so chaotic here, even the snitches don't know who... [inaudible].”
The next day at roll call, Bovell says he continued recording, and Sergeant Kushnir continued his harassment. Going over assignments, Bovell says Kushnir again motioned towards him. “412 South Second -- rats,” he said in the recording, drawing instant laughter. “So we already know that story.”
Listen to the secret recordings in reporter George Joseph's WNYC story :
Bovell says he reported both incidents to then Mount Vernon police chief Richton Ziadie. According to the lawsuit, filed in state Supreme Court, his allegations were never investigated or addressed. Neither Kushnir nor Ziadie responded to requests for comment.
Shawn Harris, the department’s current police commissioner, told Gothamist/WNYC that he could not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit is not Officer Bovell’s first legal action against the department, which serves a city of 70,000 on Westchester County’s southern border with the Bronx.
In 2015, he filed a lawsuit alleging harassment, but lost after a judge excluded many of his claims due to procedural failures.
“It also sounds like there are serious -- or could be serious problems -- within the Mount Vernon Police Department,” said U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel, according to a transcript of the hearing. “Unfortunately, most of them are not going to be adjudicated in this lawsuit because of lapses in what claims were brought when and against whom.”
The new suit, bolstered by documentary evidence, could fuel further turmoil in the city, which has been reeling from months of political in-fighting. In July, a judge ruled against Mount Vernon’s then-mayor, Richard Thomas, who was attempting to stay in office despite pleading guilty to misdemeanor corruption charges. And last month Ziadie, the former police chief, was suspended as a result of an ongoing overtime abuse investigation.
A spokeswoman for Mount Vernon Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard, who won election earlier this month and takes office in January, said she was not familiar with the Bovell case.
Marnie Blit, executive director of the New York City Commission to Combat Police Corruption, said a supervisor calling a subordinate a “rat” or a “snitch” could have serious chilling effects inside a police department.
“Not only is the officer facing isolation from his colleagues when he’s been outed as as a rat. He’s also facing a possibility of physical danger because his colleagues could fail to give him back up,” said Blit, who would not comment on the specific allegations in Bovell’s case. “So other officers seeing that he is outed are not going to want to report misconduct because they’d fear the same treatment.”
The latest allegations come on the heels of other acts of harassment Bovell says he has faced over the last year. On July 15th, 2019, he says he went to his locker and found a rubber rat toy placed next to it. According to his lawsuit, another sergeant, Gregory Addison, came up from a nearby entrance, looked at Bovell and started laughing. The next day, Bovell says, he found paste smeared on his combination lock. According to the suit, then-Chief Ziadie again “did not investigate or address the incidents.”
Addison did not respond to a request for comment.
Bovell argues the tactics are a clear attempt to intimidate him for reporting misconduct over the last four years, since his previous suit. It detailed several allegations of corruption and racism, which were eventually excluded for technical reasons. The remaining claims had to do with labor issues such as denial of medical benefits, and the jury sided with the police department.
On December 10th, 2017, Bovell filed an internal harassment complaint with the city, alleging that fellow officers were collaborating with drug dealers, allowing them to sell drugs scot-free while arresting the buyers to rack up arrests. It also referred to new allegations of physical abuse of black residents and police lying.
Gothamist/WNYC interviewed several current and recently retired Mount Vernon police officers, who agreed that the “rat” label is a clear attempt to deter whistleblowing.
“If you say anything against another officer, they label you as a rat. That’s why a lot of people don’t say anything,” said one patrol officer, who requested anonymity citing fears of professional reprisal.
By allowing the sergeant to label him a rat, the department could endanger Bovell, the patrol officer continued, “because people won’t give him back up.”
“Even if his life is in danger they’ll be slow to respond,” he said.
Other police sources also echoed Bovell’s claims about the department’s culture. Another officer in the department told WNYC that white officers regularly demean black residents in the city’s poorer south side.
“When they come and work in Mount Vernon, it’s like a culture shock,” the officer said. “When they look at some of the residents on the south side, they have referred to them as ‘skells,’ ‘those people.’ Sometimes I have to remind them they live in these conditions because they can’t move out.”
Jennifer Carpenter, a former MVPD sergeant who retired in 2018, said she felt some white officers learned brutality from their supervisors. Young cops, she said, “learn quickly that you are more accepted in the club, if you mother-f this one, or kick ‘em in the face.”
Commissioner Harris did not respond to questions about the department’s culture and treatment of residents.
In his new lawsuit, Bovell says that after speaking out against racism and corruption, the department unfairly tried to strip him of his gun, failed to promote him and denied him medical benefits. His attorney, Joe Murray, a former NYPD officer and the Republican nominee for Queens District Attorney, says Bovell wants more than back pay and an unspecified amount of punitive damages. He also wants changes at the department.
“As a former police officer, reviewing the facts of this case, I was personally offended and embarrassed for that department that this was allowed to go on for so long, completely unencumbered by the Mount Vernon Police Department administration,” he said in a phone call. “We want better oversight of their investigation process, so that it protects good hardworking honest police whistleblowers from being retaliated against.”
Bovell says he's concerned about being on the street now with the rat label hanging over him. "Being a police officer, your life is on the line everyday,” he said. “You depend on your fellow cops, so you don't know what could happen."
Still, he hopes his fight will inspire others in the department to come forward. "One thing for sure -- if I don't speak out, they will have their way, you know?” said Bovell. “Because they're doing that right now."
Last month, the department issued an internal operations order, obtained by WNYC, banning unauthorized recordings. It states: “No member of the Department shall initiate or conduct any electronic voice recording or any video recording of any conversation or activity without the express authority of the Police Commissioner.”
UPDATE 11/26: Hours after the publication of this story, Mount Vernon Police Commissioner Shawn Harris placed Sergeant Michael Kushnir on Restricted Duty Status, according to a personnel order leaked to Gothamist/WNYC. Harris did not respond to Gothamist/WNYC’s request for comment on the decision.
UPDATE 11/28: In an emailed statement, Mount Vernon Mayor-Elect Shawyn Patterson-Howard said, “Police are expected to protect and serve the public by maintaining order and safety in our communities. Inappropriate and unprofessional conduct erodes the public’s trust, making it more difficult for officers to perform their duties. I support an independent investigation of this case by the Westchester County District Attorney’s office to ensure an unbiased review of the facts."
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