The Root: NYPD Detectives Racially Profiled Over 360 Black and Latino Men While Searching for Howard Beach Killer

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Aliya Semper Ewing
May 10, 2019

Just two weeks after Chanel Lewis, 22, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano, shocking new details have emerged about the initial manhunt that left black and Latino men stripped of dignity, if not also their rights.

According to the Daily News, in the months after Vetrano’s sexual assault and murder, law enforcement had no leads on a suspect other than a DNA test showing a black male as the culprit. Based on this, then-Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce demanded DNA swabs from over 360 black and Latino men simply because they had been previously arrested in Queens, N.Y. There appears to be no cohesive reason as to why these men were named on a list of potential suspects other than their race and having been previously arrested in Howard Beach. The majority had been arrested for non-violent crimes including misdemeanors such as shoplifting or low-level drug possession. There was also no pattern to the men’s ages, which widely ranged from early 20s to mid-60s.

The News learned of this biased swabbing campaign from an anonymous letter that included a list of 50 of the profiled men and their photos taken off a police database. Only three of those 50 men who’d been swabbed were previously arrested for violent crime. Legal experts say this act likely violated the civil rights of the men and is a calling card of the NYPD’s “racially biased” policing tactics.

The mandatory swabbing was not simply an inconvenience on the path to proving innocence; it was dehumanizing, and in some cases caused emotional distress and reputation damage. One man told the Daily News his parents were so deeply disturbed by repeated visits from detectives that they sold their house and moved to Westchester County. Another man said he was embarrassed and stigmatized after his neighbors saw detectives questioning him at his door.

Terri Rosenblatt, supervising attorney of the DNA Unit at the Legal Aid Society tells the Daily News:

“This DNA dragnet of black and brown New Yorkers brings the NYPD’s racially biased policing to a new low. The police aggressively collect DNA from New Yorkers using a variety of racially biased and sometimes secretive means. These tactics are fundamentally inconsistent with the fair policing that our city lawmakers claim to support and only serves to sow more distrust of the police without any significant law enforcement purpose.”

It’s important to note that while the swabbing request was technically voluntary, power dynamics combined with fear from those unfamiliar with their rights put these men in a troubling situation, often feeling they must comply or face worse consequences. Civil rights lawyer Joel Berger detailed:

“‘Consent’ rarely is voluntary. The law is clear that a waiver of one’s right must be “knowing and intelligent,” and that must include awareness that one has the right to refuse. Police illegally put pressure on people to ‘consent’ in various ways such as claiming that they can arrest or return speedily with a warrant, or threatening other consequences.”

Phillip Walzak, a police spokesman, declined to comment to The Daily News about the swabbing practice, as did former Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce.

However, Michael Palladino, head of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, claims the DNA swabs were justified by the facts of the case.

“I don’t see it as an issue of race,” he said to The News. “It’s really about following up on the evidence left at the scene. In this case the DNA recovered at the scene indicated the killer was black so our detectives requested samples from people consistent with the evidence.”

Clearly, Palladino believes that the heinous acts of one black man makes all black men suspect regardless of disposition, history, age, location, alibi, or any other differentiating detail.

Maurice Sylla, 56, was one of the men asked to be swabbed. Sylla was “consistent with the evidence” of being a rapist and murder as Palladino claims, because in 2014 he was arrested for driving without a license.

“Because I had a fender-bender a mile away from the murder scene, they profiled me,” he said. Not only was he profiled, Sylla claims that detectives interrogated and terrified his teenaged niece after they mistakenly went to his sister’s home in search of him.

But he didn’t cave into the intense police pressure.

Instead, Maurice Sylla called the 106th Precinct and demanded to speak to the officer in command. When a sergeant ignored Sylla’s request and refused to connect him, Sylla told them he’d call Internal Affairs and the Civilian Complaint Review Board if they didn’t leave him alone and stop harassing his family.

“They left me alone after that,” Sylla said. “They realized I would be their worst nightmare because I know my rights.”