A pair of Staten Island police officers who allegedly planted marijuana in a black teenager's car earlier this year are now facing additional accusations of racial profiling, following an inquiry into their past arrests by the Legal Aid Society.
The analysis of recent arrests made by Officer Kyle Erickson and Officer Elmer Pastran, shared with Gothamist on Tuesday, revealed that the two partners have stopped "an extraordinarily high percentage of people of color in relation to the community they serve." In response to the findings, public defenders and police reform advocates are calling for a criminal investigation into the officers, amid fears that their alleged set-up of Lasou Kuyateh earlier this year was part of a larger pattern of evidence planting.
"While it is incredibly disturbing to watch video of Officer Erickson planting marijuana on Mr. Kuyateh, it is equally as disturbing to examine the patterns of practice among these two officers," said Aiden Cotter, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society representing Kuyateh. "Unfortunately, the actions of these two officers only exemplifies the racial bias that exists within the NYPD."
Despite working in a precinct where less than half the population is black and Latino, people of color comprise nearly 90 percent of individuals arrested by the partners since 2017. For street encounters, that number was as high as 93 percent. Out of 37 marijuana arrests made by the officers since 2017, people of color have been charged in all but four instances.
Cotter emphasized that the apparent racial bias in the officers’ marijuana arrests was largely in line with citywide enforcement discrepancies. According to a recent Times investigation, black people in New York City were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white people over the past three years.
“The NYPD does not want marijuana to be legalized because they would lose a frequently utilized tool in their over-policing of people of color,” Cotter told Gothamist. (The Legal Aid Society could not immediately provide the demographic breakdown of all arrests made in the 120th precinct)
(Courtesy of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys)
The stark racial disparities were discovered as part of a Legal Aid Society inquiry undertaken following the controversial traffic stop and arrest of Kuyateh this past February. After officers claimed to have found a lit joint in the backseat of his car, Kuyateh, then 19, was held for two weeks in the Brooklyn Detention Center on $1,000 bail. He's made a dozen court appearances for the arrest in the months since, all the while maintaining that the officers planted the drugs.
While the charges were recently dropped, Kuyateh's attorneys are now accusing the Staten Island D.A.'s office and NYPD of blocking further scrutiny into the "abhorrent police misconduct" that led to the arrest.
Their concerns were outlined in two letters sent to Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon last week by the Legal Aid Society and the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys. According to Christopher Pisciotta, Attorney-In-Charge of the Staten Island Criminal Defense Practice at Legal Aid, the NYPD's own body camera videos "revealed criminal acts and misconduct" by Erickson and Pastran, including "planting evidence, arresting an innocent person, making false sworn allegations and assisting in the prosecution of manufactured charges."
They note that police body camera footage presented during pre-trial hearings shows Erickson telling Pastran: "We gotta find something, you know what I mean?" Erickson's recording device turns off moments later, but he remains visible on his partner's camera, and can be seen fumbling with an evidence bag near the window of Kuyateh's car. The footage, according to Pisciotta, then captures Erickson planting a joint in an area of the car that was previously searched. Just as Erickson purposefully reaches into the back seat to retrieve the alleged evidence, his own body camera is reactivated.
When the suspicious body camera footage was finally presented in court, eight months after the arrest, Judge Christopher Robles abruptly intervened to prevent the cross-examination of Erickson by Kuyateh's lawyers. In a highly unusual move, the judge then recommended Erickson hire a personal lawyer, according to the Legal Aid Society. The following day, the case was dismissed and sealed by the Staten Island D.A.'s office, with no further explanation from prosecutors or the judge.
Asked about the suspicious circumstances of the arrest and testimony, NYPD spokesperson Phillip Walzak told Gothamist last month that a "thorough investigation" had turned up no evidence of any wrongdoing by the officers. The department would not comment on the new revelations, except to reiterate that the officers had been cleared. The Civilian Complaint Review Board said it was investigating allegations within their jurisdiction, but would not elaborate.
"Too often, such matters are referred back to NYPD to police their own to no avail," wrote Pisciotta in his letter to D.A. McMahon. "The call for justice then rests upon you." In addition to demanding a criminal investigation into both Erickson and Pastran, the public defenders group is calling for a review of all prior convictions secured with the officers' help, citing the "ease in which the officers planted evidence" and an "undeniable pattern of racial profiling targeting black and Latino people for arrest and charges in a more diverse community."
"Community trust cannot remain when prosecutions are based on criminal acts and false testimony of police officers sworn to protect and serve," he added.
A spokesperson for the Staten Island District Attorney declined to comment for this story. You can read the full letters sent by the Legal Aid Society and the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys below.
Legal Aid Society Criminal Defense Office, Richmond County by Anonymous zb4DMbDC on Scribd
Association of Legal Aid Attorneys by Anonymous zb4DMbDC on Scribd
Following publication of this story, a spokesperson for the Staten Island District Attorney's office provided Gothamist with the following statement: "After a thorough review of this case, the charges against the defendant were dismissed. Moreover, allegations against responding officers were determined to be unfounded."