Media-Darling Cop Terence Monahan’s Legacy of Brutality

Theodore Hamm Jun 6, 2020

He took a knee on Monday night at Union Square protests, garnering the effusive praise of Mayor Bill de Blasio. But on Thursday night, he quite literally looked the other way when cops started roughing up protesters in the Bronx. 

Throughout his career, Monahan has been a leading practitioner of both broken-windows policing and crackdowns on protests.

In between, Chief of Department Terence Monahan — the NYPD’s highest-ranked uniform officer — appeared on the network-TV morning shows and with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, whose “Big Brother” apologized to Monahan for criticizing the department’s handling of looting earlier in the week. 

Relatively unknown outside of police circles until now, Monahan is suddenly in the spotlight. Yet throughout his nearly four-decade career with the NYPD, Monahan has been a leading practitioner of both broken-windows policing and crackdowns on protests, two of the main issues that enrage many activists on the streets today. 

Monahan’s ascension to the department’s number-two post under de Blasio further shows how out-of-sync the mayor is with the criminal justice reform movement that helped elect him. 

A third-generation cop from the Bronx, Monahan joined the force in 1982. He established his reputation as a precinct commander in the Bronx during Bill Bratton’s first stint as NYPD commissioner (1994–1996) under Rudy Giuliani. 

In early 1995, an NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau investigation resulted in the indictments of 16 Bronx cops for falsifying car theft reports and shaking down drug dealers. Ten of the officers were from the 48th Precinct, which covers East Tremont and Morris Heights. Late in the investigation, Monahan had been appointed as the precinct’s commander. He immediately initiated a crackdown on “quality-of-life” offenses such as trespassing and prostitution. 

As the New York Times reported later that year, Monahan’s devotion to “street work” meant that he didn’t run the precinct from behind his desk. His bulletin board, meanwhile, featured a signed glossy photo of Col. Oliver North, a key player in the Iran-Contra scandal and a right-wing figurehead.  

Monahan was soon moved over to the 46th Precinct in University Heights, then a high-crime area. Tensions were running after the October 1996 bench-trial acquittal of precinct officer Francis Livoti in the chokehold killing of Anthony Baez. Widespread outrage after the verdict resulted in Livoti’s subsequent conviction on federal civil rights charges, an example invoked by activists in last year’s Daniel Pantaleo protests. 

While presiding over the 46th, Monahan continued his hardline Broken Windows enforcement. Low-level arrests spiked, and violent crime dropped (as it did elsewhere without the same volume of arrests). In late 1997, Monahan told the Daily News that in University Heights, the “arrogance on the street is gone.” By this he was referring to “guys dominating a corner, drinking beer.” One of his favorite tactics was to take milk crates away from the front of bodegas so that people had nowhere to sit. 

Five years later, Monahan was now a deputy chief under Commissioner Ray Kelly. According to Andrew Case, spokesman for the Civilian Complaint Review Board during the Bloomberg administration, Monahan was responsible for using metal pens for protesters at the 2002 World Economic Forum, resulting in numerous arrests. That was a dress rehearsal for the 2004 RNC. 

On day two of the convention, Monahan ordered the arrest of 227 activists who had been penned on Fulton Street in Downtown Manhattan. Along with nearly 1,600 other people, Monahan’s captives were illegally detained at Pier 57 until the convention ended over two days later. The charges against all 227 were dropped in October 2004. The number of current protest arrests has already exceeded 2,500.

The total cost in settlements related to the wrongful arrests at the RNC surpassed $35 million. Because lawsuit payouts are not charged to the NYPD’s budget, the department has no incentive to penalize officers responsible for any such actions. Ray Kelly, meanwhile, refused to let Monahan testify before the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a violation of the City Charter. 

After Bratton took the reins as commissioner under de Blasio in 2014, Monahan again began moving up the ranks. His main role was to oversee the “Neighboring Policing” initiative that many critics saw as achieving little more than PR. An ally of both Bratton’s successors Jimmy O’Neill (2016-2019) and now Dermot Shea, Monahan became Chief of Department in January  2018. 

Upon his appointment, de Blasio’s then-spokesman Eric Phillips declared that “Terry is a great cop and an absolute class act.” Hundreds of activists collared and roughed up under the arrest-happy Monahan will surely disagree. 

Theodore Hamm’s Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics is now available.

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