Mount Vernon police officer John Campo was on the phone with a colleague, complaining about a search warrant raid that had gone wrong. Campo didn’t know his colleague was secretly recording the call.
“We hit the door,” Campo said. “This guy Vito runs to the toilet flushes all the heroin down the toilet, right? So we come up with nothing, but I got him on the sale anyway.”
Police had nabbed Vito Capio, a 67-year-old man. They were going to charge him for a drug sale, he said, but that wasn’t enough for one of the other officers, Detective Camilo Antonini.
Detective Antonini began assaulting the handcuffed old man right in front of their supervisor Sergeant Sean Fegan, Campo alleged on the call.
“‘I’m talking about, not little smacks, I’m talking about cocking back and smacking this dude so hard that he’s losing his breath and can’t breathe,” Campo exclaimed. “To the point that after five minutes, Fegan was like, ‘Yo ‘Nini give him an inhaler, give him your inhaler, he’s about to die.’ I’m just standing there. I’m like, ‘Yo, what’s this guy doing? Like who cares, he flushed it.”
Sergeant Fegan told Gothamist/WNYC he has no recollection of the arrest, which police records show took place in October of 2017. But he said he would never stand by during an assault like this. Antonini and Campo declined to comment for this story.
That call was one of a trove of secret recordings, made by Officer Murashea Bovell, a whistleblower cop in Mount Vernon, a small city just north of the Bronx. Between 2017 and this year, Bovell captured numerous allegations of police brutality and abuse like this in hours of phone calls with Officer John Campo and at least two other other colleagues. The accusations range from assaults of civilians in custody and on the street to illegal strip searches and unjustified tasings of unarmed residents.
The tapes, along with numerous interviews of residents, lawsuits, and confidential internal affairs documents, point to a culture of routine brutality and impunity enabled by department supervisors in recent years. In one recording, a detective said he witnessed a colleague assaulting a civilian in a cell at the police station. When he tried to report it, he claimed supervisors failed to investigate and recommended he transfer units. In a separate call, another officer described an incident in which a sergeant concocted a story to justify a subordinate’s assault of a young man on the street.
The brutality allegations are the latest in a string of police scandals that have sparked outrage in the city, which is one of Westchester County’s few majority Black enclaves. In June, Gothamist/WNYC published its first two investigations based on the Mount Vernon police tapes, examining claims of narcotics officers framing innocent residents and teaming up with favored drug dealers. The stories became the pivotal issue in the Democratic primary race for Westchester County District Attorney, which saw the defeat of incumbent DA Anthony Scarpino. Scarpino’s office had the tapes for months and faced criticism for allegedly failing to take decisive action while quietly bringing cases forward involving the accused officers.
Listen to reporter George Joseph's story for WNYC:
In a phone call with Gothamist/WNYC, Mount Vernon police commissioner Glenn Scott made clear that the department is thoroughly investigating every allegation made in the recordings. "Under my administration, the police department is seeking to be as transparent as possible with the community, so that we can develop a better understanding and mutual partnership," he said.
While the commissioner could not comment on the specifics of the probe, he noted that the department is now working with the Westchester County District Attorney's Office and has several former members of the narcotics unit under investigation.
Officer Bovell, the whistleblower who provided the tapes to Gothamist/WNYC earlier this year, also declined to comment for this article citing the police department’s pending investigation. All of the officers accused of brutality in the tapes and named in this article remain on the force.
Insider Allegations of Brutality
Many of the brutality claims in the Mount Vernon police tapes concern Detective Antonini and other officers who worked alongside him in the narcotics unit in previous years. In the recordings, officers suggested these alleged assaults were unwarranted and stemmed from aggressive tactics and frustration with civilians’ perceived non-compliance.
In one November 2017 recording, Allen Patterson, a Mount Vernon detective, claimed that a few years before Bovell filed a lawsuit accusing Detective Antonini of brutality and corruption, he had also reported Antonini for allegedly assaulting a civilian at police headquarters. But back then, Patterson complained he received no back up from fellow witnesses, including Bovell.
“Everybody put their heads down ‘cause remember we had a meeting about this motherf***er, and said, ‘Yo if he does it again, we gonna stand up and say something,” Patterson said in the recording, referring to Detective Antonini. “And he did it again, beating that motherf***er right there in the cell block, and I stood up and said ‘What’s up fellas?’ All of you put your heads back on the desk.”
Patterson said he reported the assault to a supervisor. But two days later, instead of getting an investigation, he said he was offered a transfer to another section of the detective’s division. He claimed he then gave up his detective’s shield and went back down to the patrol division in protest.
Detective Antonini remained in the narcotics unit for several more years, where his name continued to come up in civilian complaints and lawsuits alleging brutality. Patterson did not respond to requests for comment about the incident.
In a February 2018 recording, Officer John Campo, who worked in the narcotics unit after Patterson left, also alleged that Detective Antonini had assaulted civilians at the police station. “Everytime he brings somebody in that he didn’t like or something went wrong and he didn’t like, he would smack them in cuffs or in the cage,” he said in the call.
In another recording, Campo worried about the potential legal ramifications of this alleged brutality. “All you going to do is get fake confessions out of people because people are gonna be scared because no one wants to get choked out again dude, or smacked,” he said.
Antonini was not the only officer in the unit who Campo said acted with impunity. “Even your boy King, I’ve seen him tase people for no reason,” he told the whistleblower, referring to another narcotics officer Patrick King. “People have nothing on them, and they get away with it,” he continued. “Nothing happens to them. No one gets written up.”
King did not respond to requests for comment.
Avion Lee, another police officer, described an incident in which her colleagues chased a young man just because he started running upon seeing officers. Courts and federal investigators have noted that in heavily-policed communities, innocent residents sometimes run just to avoid the risk of police abuse. And in this case, at least according to Lee’s account, such fears may have been warranted.
That day, Lee said she followed her colleagues who eventually pinned down the young man. But by the time she got to the scene, she said his face looked so badly beaten that his jaw may have been broken. The violent takedown was not necessary, Lee suggested. “Him not dirty, but he just like to run,” she told Bovell, speaking in Carribean patois.
Afterwards, Lee alleged that the supervisor on scene had officers make up a story about seeing the young man engage in a drug transaction to justify the pursuit, subsequent arrest, and charges, which she said was soon dismissed. Lee did not respond to requests for comment about the incident.
The Dangers of Discretion
For years in Mount Vernon, narcotics officers drew complaints for tactics like jumping out of cars in plainclothes and humiliating frisks on the street. Civilians also accused the plainclothes officers of brutality and pocketing cash from suspects, but their complaints were often dismissed. Earlier this year, however, as Gothamist/WNYC’s reporting began to bring public scrutiny to the unit, Glenn Scott, the department’s new commissioner, dissolved the group and began probing years-old allegations against some of its members.
Across the country, some of the most famous police corruption scandals have involved specialized units like the Mount Vernon narcotics crew. Many departments turned to these aggressive, plainclothes squads in the early 1990s when homicide rates were at their peak nationwide. Unlike patrol officers, who have to respond to a constant stream of 911 calls, these squads were often empowered to roam the streets in search of as many guns and drugs as possible— a brute-force approach to stopping potential shootings.
Some research has found these units can drive significant reductions in violent crime. But their broad discretion and hunting-mentality can also open the door to routine brutality and corruption. Perhaps the most shocking recent example of this was in Baltimore, where an elite gun unit earned departmental praise and accolades for its work ethic and arrest productivity, while quietly carrying out scores of assaults and robberies for years.
Larry Smith, a former Baltimore police officer who worked in a specialized unit himself, said the intense pressure these units are under almost inevitably fosters brutality.
“A lot of the frustration comes from, ‘I need to arrest as many people as I can tonight. And if you’re not cooperating, if you’re not moving fast enough, if you’re not giving me the answer I want, then it can become physical,” said Smith, who left the force in 2017 and is now a writer. “It can turn into, ‘He was non-compliant, so I tased him. He was non-compliant, so I hit him with my nightstick. I had to take him to the ground.”
Police leaders, eager to put guns and kilos in front of cameras, have too often closed their eyes to these tactics, said Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “Supervisors have not been attentive to exactly what these units are doing,” he said. “They’ve been willing to look the other way as long as their numbers look good.”
In Mount Vernon, too, current and former officers have accused past administrations of ignoring warning signs because of certain officers’ productivity. According to police records, Detective Antonini alone has racked up more than five hundred arrests in his career.
In a phone call, Commissioner Glenn Scott asserted that those units in Mount Vernon today that still use plainclothes tactics are far more supervised and disciplined than those that operated in the past. "I have assigned Deputy Chief Steve Sexton to ensure that use of force, duty to intervene, search-and-seizure, and evidence collection procedures are followed, and that all cases are scrutinized," he said. Scott also noted that one of the department’s newly reconstituted units, the Violent Crime Unit, which employs some plainclothes tactics, has no members of the former narcotics unit that are currently under investigation.
Claims of Invasive Strip Searches and Alleged Sexual Abuse
Aggressive tactics have also sparked allegations about a form of police abuse carried out behind closed doors: strip searches and anal cavity inspections conducted by officers searching for drugs.
These types of invasive searches are authorized by police rules and the law under very particular circumstances. But in at least four lawsuits, filed in the last five years, residents have accused Antoninini and other narcotics officers of going beyond what is allowed by police rules and, in at least three of those suits, of engaging in violent sexual abuse.
On the night of March 31st, 2017, Rayvonn Rutherford says he was hanging out at a friend’s apartment in Mount Vernon cooking hotdogs, when a group of narcotics officers in dark hoodies showed up. “They broke in the door, and immediately had their guns out, ‘Get on the floor before we shoot you. Get on the f***ing floor,” Rutherford recalled.
Police had a warrant to search the apartment and the individuals there for drugs. According to police department rules, officers in the field are only allowed to frisk people to check for weapons, evidence, or contraband. But during this raid, the searches went much further, according to videos obtained by Rutherford in a lawsuit he and another man later filed.
One video shows Detective Antonini stripping off the boxers of a handcuffed man in his fifties. Antonini then has him squat and cough, as he ducks down to look into his anus. Apparently seeing no contraband, he pulls his underwear back up and directs him to a nearby coach, where he and a hooded officer start searching his shoes.
In another video, in which the search is mostly off-camera, you can hear a police officer pushing another man in his fifties into squatting and coughing in a bathroom, despite his pleas that he has no drugs inside of him. Towards the end of that video, you can see the man’s pants dropped to the floor as he stands in his boxers. After the search, another officer informs him they found no drugs on him.
Karen Newirth, an attorney representing Rutherford and another man searched that day, said the searches are a form of sexual abuse.
“This is not what people necessarily picture as sexual abuse,” said Newirth, who works for an organization called The Exoneration Project. “But people need to try to imagine what it would feel like to be touched in that way by police officers, to be handcuffed, have your clothing removed, and be made to turn around, squat and reveal the most intimate parts of your body to utter strangers.”
The searches recorded in the apartment also constitute clear violations of police rules, according to two sources inside the Mount Vernon police department. According to Mount Vernon police rules, officers must bring arrestees to a police facility if they wish to conduct searches more extensive than frisks, such as strip searches. Body cavity searches are supposed to be done by doctors in medical examining rooms.
“They’re not supposed to do any type of strip search except in police headquarters in the presence of a supervisor,” said one patrol officer, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
“If you’re in the field, you can pat someone down or frisk them, but if you’re gonna take off their pants or underwear you have to bring them in,” said another current member of the Mount Vernon Police Department, who requested anonymity citing concerns over reprisal. “These officers are clearly violating the policy here. So if the department wants to, it can fire them. Whether they will is another story."
"While these videos have just come to our attention because of your inquiry, we will review them and, if necessary, investigate the extent to which the actions therein are or are not in accord with department rules,” Commissioner Scott said. “I have sent the information you provided me on these searches to internal affairs to have them begin a review of this footage."
In a phone call, Sergeant Sean Fegan, the supervisor on scene during the operation, defended the officers’ actions. He argued that the searches recorded on video were strip searches with “visual inspections.” He said police have conducted these kinds of searches at search warrant locations for as long as he could remember. But when pressed about Mount Vernon’s police rules, which say strip searches should be conducted inside police facilities, Fegan declined comment.
Smith, the former Baltimore officer, says the strip searches are a clear example of officers rushing to get arrests at the expense of civilians’ dignity. “It’s a time thing,” he said. “You have to be sure that you’re gonna get something, and a lot of times cops aren’t sure. So you’re not gonna take the time to take the person into custody, take them back to the station, articulate why you’re doing this, and then do it properly.”
Rayvon Rutherford’s Allegations
On the night of the apartment raid, Rayvon Rutherford claims police did not record his own search, which he alleged was even more violent. He said when officers told him it was his turn for a strip down, he refused. At that point, he said Detective Antonini and another detective, Robert Puff, forced him to the ground and ripped his clothes off. He alleged that Antonini held him down on the floor, while Puff penetrated his rectum with his fingers multiple times looking for drugs.
“I felt something go inside my anal, you know what I’m saying, my anus. I’m like yo what the f***, and they’re like, ‘Stop moving or you’re going to get it again,’” he told Gothamist/WNYC.
Rutherford believes he was being punished. “They’re basically retaliating against me because I didn’t want to comply with the search,” he said. “So they was like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna show you.’”
Though Rutherford says police did not record his search, in a police video of another man’s search, officers on scene do refer to him. “Where’s Rayvon’s other shoe? Right there?,” one officer says. “Alright bring it with you. Puff get some gloves.”
Puff did not respond to a request for comment. Fegan, the supervisor on scene, did not respond to Rutherford’s claims about his search not being recorded, but denied the allegations of sexual abuse. “I wouldn't authorize anything like that,” he said.
In two separate calls, however, Officer Campo alleged to Bovell that he had seen fellow officers conducting illegal strip searches without recording them, echoing Rutherford’s claims.
After the search warrant execution, Rutherford was arrested on drug charges, which were eventually dismissed. But three years later, he is still struggling with the experience.
“It’s still like, I’m walking down the street, and I see the police and I’m hoping they don’t just wanna bother me,” he said. “I’m still not mentally stable. There’s a lot of things that I have to address, that l haven’t addressed it from that situation.”
Rutherford’s lawsuit against the police department is still pending.
In a phone call, Commissioner Scott said he was unaware of Rutherford's lawsuit and could not comment on it. Still, he noted that the department has major issues to address.
"The narcotics unit will not be re-instituted until all deficiencies are corrected, including anything having to do with any type of bodily search,” he said. “As a result of this disbandment, we are enlisting the assistance of several county and federal agencies to continue narcotics investigations in Mount Vernon."
This piece is part of an ongoing series on police corruption allegations in Mount Vernon, New York, and Westchester County. If you have a tip about a prosecutor's office, a law enforcement agency or the courts, email reporter George Joseph at email@example.com. He is also on Facebook, Twitter@georgejoseph94, and Instagram @georgejoseph81. You can also text or call him with tips at 929-486-4865. He is also on the encrypted phone app Signal with the same phone number.