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NYPD’s Internal Trial of Two Killer Cops Became a Theater of the Absurd

Issue 280

The New York Police Department sure has a funny idea of what justice looks like.

John Teufel Jun 16, 2023

If you’re searching for grandeur, you’ll do well to skip over the fourth-floor administrative trial room at One Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan. The ornate, imposing courtrooms at the civil courthouse down the street at 60 Centre — where Law & Order regularly films — feel a world away from this dingy, threadbare simulacrum. Fluorescent lights overhead lend a nauseating pall to proceedings. There is one thin line of windows in the room, and it is blocked by what appears to be scaffolding, so even on the sunniest days, it perpetually feels like dusk. Fake wood and false surfaces abound, from the cheap plastic composites of the floor to the thin wood-paneling of the walls, as though someone knew that mahoganies and cherries best convey the seriousness of legal proceedings, but was only given a WalMart budget.

The surroundings are well-matched, though, to what happens in this room, where issues of tremendously low stakes ­— indeed, arguably, issues without any stakes at all — are hashed out in a grand pantomime of legal process, stripped of any of the, well, law usually found in such a process. From the actors to the stage on which they stand, there are only illusions here. The wood paneling conceals a void.

COOKING WHILE BLACK: Kawaski Trawick was shot and killed in his kitchen after NYPD officers Brendan Thompson and Herbert Davis knocked down his door and entered his apartment without a warrant.

I was here to observe the disciplinary trial of Herbert Davis and Brendan Thompson, both NYPD officers, for the killing of a gay Black man named Kawaski Trawick on April 14, 2019, in the Bronx. Around me were journalists, activists, Trawick’s family and many, many armed cops, whose 9mm pistols bounced against their waists as they barked orders at us. 

The defendants, Davis and Thompson, were armed, too, and in full uniform. For much of the trial, Thompson wore a comically over-the-top military Kevlar vest. All attendees went through metal detectors, so I can’t imagine the purpose of this other than to remind the “judge” — as if she needed reminding — that he is a member of a very exclusive club, the club of people who can kill other people without consequence.

So there I sat alongside the ruffled Daily News reporter, the surprisingly young Post guy, a few Zoomer activists and everyone else, as we waited to see what further violence the City of New York would inflict on Kawaski Trawick and his family.

Cooking while Black

There is video of Trawick’s death, and it is all the evidence you need to understand, at least on a moral level, how unnecessary and brutal his death was. What follows is a description of the events seen in the video, along with some context learned after the events occurred.

Trawick locked himself out of his apartment while cooking, while holding a stick and a bread knife, the latter of which he relegated to his pocket once in the hall. Undoubtedly frustrated, probably at both the situation and himself (and he seems super annoyed in the video), he left his hall to speak with his superintendent and a building security guard. Neither would let him back in, for reasons that aren’t clear, and so he then called the Fire Department, who broke his door so he could re-enter his own home. In that call, Trawick very clearly states he has locked himself out of his apartment, and further notes that the super “is busy.” In a clear effort to smear Trawick, the defense made much of Trawick falsely telling the Fire Department on this call that there was a fire in his apartment. I won’t defend Trawick’s choice there, except to say that is entirely, 100% irrelevant to everything that happened next, and was not known to Davis or Thompson.

Brendan Thompson
Herbert Davis

At some point, the security guard called 911, reporting that Trawick was banging on his neighbors’ and the super’s doors, and was holding a stick. No knife is mentioned. In the 911 dispatch to Thompson and Davis, this becomes a report that Trawick was “harassing” the security guard. The 911 reporter also told the officers that the building was a “sensitive location” for “EDP” – emotionally disturbed persons. (At trial, we learned this meant that the building was known to have at least a few EDPs residing therein.) The super also called 911, claiming Trawick threatened to punch him and emphasizing that tenants are not supposed to knock on his door, ever, for any reason.

Davis and Thompson reported to the scene, first waiting in their car for quite some time as firetrucks cleared out, and then walking past firefighters leaving Trawick’s unit. Both officers failed to ask FDNY why they were in the building. (This continues to confuse me ­— you are literally walking past firefighters on your way to respond to a 911 call and don’t ask what they are doing there?) After knocking on the door to Trawick’s apartment, and getting no response, Davis pushed the door open, unlatching the security chain as he did so. There the officers found Trawick, in his kitchen, listening to music.

You should understand something at this point. Davis is a Black man, with 16 years of experience as a police officer. Thompson is white, and at the time had three years on the force. Police violence can’t be reduced entirely to racial dynamics, but as you’ll see, it’s hard to dispute that race had a lot to do with what happened next.

Davis immediately pulls out his baton, and Thompson, his taser. “What are you doing in my home?” asks Trawick when he sees the intruders. Davis raps the door hard with his baton (at trial, he admitted this was done to intimidate Trawick) and says firmly to his partner, “We ain’t gonna tase him.” Trawick walks to the back of his kitchen to turn down his music, so as to better converse with the officers. Again and again, Trawick asks why the officers are in his home. Thompson says, “He’s got a knife,” to which Trawick responds, “I got a knife because I’m cooking.” The officers tell Trawick to drop the knife, and Trawick continues to ask why they are in his home and why they kicked in his door. He tells the officers he was locked out of his apartment, but the FDNY let him back in. He is, the video shows, confused and frightened. As he scratches his nose and mumbles to himself, Thompson lets loose with the taser. It is a jump-scare moment — there is no indication why Thompson chose to tase Trawick while Trawick was standing still, in his kitchen, knife pointed away from the officers. I’d also submit it was the moment that sealed Trawick’s ultimate fate. 

Trawick collapses to the floor, the voltage rapidly spreading through his nerve endings. (I was mildly tased once, by holding a taser prong in my hand, and it feels like your bones are going to jump out of your skin.) The officers rush into the apartment, and Trawick jolts back to his feet, screaming, telling the officers to get out. He runs to the back of his apartment, away from the officers. As Thompson pulls his gun, Davis keeps cool and tells Thompson, “No, no, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.” Davis goes so far as to hold his hand in front of Thompson’s gun. The officers, at this point, are in the doorframe of Trawick’s apartment — the door is, and has been, theirs to close whenever they choose. Trawick, still hysterical, runs into his kitchen, in the direction of the officers, and Thompson unloads — bang bang bang, a pause, and a final bang.

After gossiping in the hallway for about 15 minutes, we re-entered the fake courtroom and took our seats. All rise for the NYPD employee!

Only then do the officers fully retreat to the hallway and close the door to Trawick’s apartment. Davis peeks his head back into the apartment, and the video ends. We now know that neither officer ever attempted to render medical aid to Trawick (they are being charged with misconduct for this, too), who died on his kitchen floor, one of Thompson’s bullets having torn through his heart.

The video released to the public by Bronx DA Darcel Clark does not include this next part. Upon arriving at the scene, a sergeant asked Davis and Thompson who was injured. Like automatons, both officers responded at once, “Nobody. Just a perp.”

And that superintendent? Upon learning Trawick had been killed, he asked an officer: “Why did you have to shoot that man? Y’all gonna shoot me too?”

Actors

Proceedings in the Thompson/Davis “trial” were overseen by a woman named Rosemary Maldonado, who is not a judge, although she is frequently referred to as such, and certainly plays the part. Maldonado is the sort of bureaucratic functionary Kafka enjoyed, bouncing around from agency to agency, rising with the tide and taking lunch at 1 p.m. In 2014, then-Police Commissioner Bill Bratton appointed her the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Trials, where she is tasked with overseeing proceedings to determine whether officers should be disciplined.

Except that is not really what she does. Ultimately, all disciplinary decisions are the purview of one person — the police commissioner, currently Keechant Sewell (who announced June 12 that she would be stepping by the end of the month). Whatever Maldonado decides is a stitch in time, a whisp of smoke. When Maldonado walks in the room, we are told to rise from our seats before she tells us to be seated again, which we all do. It is never clear why we perform this exercise for her and not, say, the DMV clerk renewing our license.

Probably the DMV clerk has a better case, as they are bound to follow clearly established law about licenses and so forth. Maldonado, not so much. In a court case, be it criminal or civil, there is a thick book of statutes telling everyone what they can and cannot do to prove or defend their case. It is often disregarded by the judge, but there are rails guiding the process, rules of evidence, pathways to review. Here, in this administrative proceeding, there is nothing of the sort.

These contradictions and vagaries led to the first blowup of the trial as Maldonado announced she would not be considering illegal entry charges against Davis and Thompson because the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates police misconduct, had blown the statute of limitations to bring them. But as the CCRB lawyers pointed out, the statute had been blown because the NYPD refused to provide body camera footage of the officers for 19 months — and indeed, didn’t provide it until after Clark announced there would be no criminal charges. 

CCRB’s prosecution squad consisted of two men, a fellow with a strong Irish accent that added a surreal air to much of this — How did he end up here? What did he just say? — and a man they kept calling “Applewhite,” presumably because this is his name. Irish was short; Applewhite, tall. Irish was the tactician, methodical in his questioning, always setting up for the kill. Applewhite — who is Black, and thus understood what this case was about in a way Irish did not — was given the less savory task of arguing with Maldonado, which happened whenever Applewhite tried to treat this process as a serious one, with two opposing sides trying to beat the other. At one point, Maldonado yelled at Applewhite for being “argumentative” with Thompson.

Representing Davis was — to Davis’ detriment, no doubt — a lawyer who should have retired many years ago. The Old Man. His speech was halting, and as a lawyer myself, I saw my future in his face if I don’t contribute to my IRA.  Thompson’s lawyer, in stark contrast, was the other kind of PBA attorney — aggressive, angry and very good at his job. He commanded the courtroom when he spoke, all swagger and confidence, a man in his element, happy to be protecting his client from suffering even the most mild of repercussions for this killing. A true Cop Lawyer.

Following the script

I am a lawyer. And so I am used to certain formalities in any legal process, rules of the road, means to ensure — or at least try to — that both sides are on a level playing field and everyone has a rough idea of what will and will not happen during a trial.

None of that is present in an NYPD administrative trial. There is no Civil Practice Law & Rules or Criminal Procedure Law — the statutes that tell judges and lawyers what is and isn’t permitted in a legal process — at One Police Plaza. Instead, there are vibes. 

So, for example, the officers were allowed to introduce into evidence DA Clark’s report declining to charge the officers; and the NYPD’s own internal report declining to discipline them. In a real trial, you can’t just drop a report down and say, “Here you go judge, enjoy it!” You need someone involved in its creation to come in, sit on the stand and testify about it, where they can then be cross-examined. Here, that would be particularly critical, as the NYPD’s investigation of this matter was, as ProPublica has conclusively shown, laughably threadbare and clearly designed to exonerate the officers.

Having these reports admitted into evidence – which means Maldonado can read them and consider them and cite them in her ruling – allowed the Old Man and the Cop Lawyer (more the Cop Lawyer) to repeatedly and belligerently insist that everyone else already cleared their clients – it’s only the haters and losers at CCRB who want to drag this all out.

During testimony, the lack of rules meant it was never clear why some objections were granted and others denied. Maldonado, particularly in the cross-examination of Thompson, limited CCRB’s ability to ask the questions it wished, at one point barring CCRB from asking the traditional Yes or No type questions that are the hallmark of any effective cross, and at another point refusing to allow CCRB to ask Thompson if he remembered his crisis intervention training (which he did not follow) during the incident.

Even the legal standard is unclear. Normally, the burden is on CCRB to show that misconduct was committed by a “preponderance of the evidence” ­— effectively, more than 50% of the evidence shows guilt. But here, the officers took the position that because CCRB blew the statute of limitations, they could only be charged for acts that would constitute crimes, the so-called “crime exception” to the statute, and this meant that the court would have to find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a far higher and heavier burden for CCRB to meet.

There is no rule book that says this. Indeed, it is directly contrary to Maldonado’s previous finding in the Daniel Pantaleo case, which was also subject to an SOL crime exception — there, Maldonado found the CCRB had to meet the lower burden of a preponderance of the evidence. But because we are effectively trying to determine what constitutes “law” by dumping tea leaves on a tabletop, it is unclear what Maldonado will rule this time, and indeed, she asked the attorneys to brief the issue for her.

In general, the evidence presented made this an easy case. Both officers admitted, either tacitly or explicitly, that they failed to follow their training when it came to emotionally disturbed persons, which would have required them to create distance between themselves and Trawick, and call a supervisor. In other words, had they closed the door and called for backup, none of this would have happened. In fact, had they simply left Trawick’s home when he demanded they do so — as they didn’t have a warrant to be there — nobody would have gotten killed. All of this is so clear and obvious, except that the entire point of these proceedings is to obscure simple truths.

Ultimately, all disciplinary decisions are the purview of one person — the police commissioner.

At a certain point during the trial, Applewhite asked that something be noted “for the record.” What record? For whose review? There is no appeal here. There is no higher body for the CCRB — or Trawick’s family — to ask to review Maldonado’s decisions. It’s not even clear that there is a record — I tried to use Freedom of Information laws to obtain the trial transcripts and CCRB told me they don’t have them, and the NYPD gave me a response date of September.

But we must all, always, adhere to the script. And we must not ever acknowledge that these proceedings are like a raft in a churning sea, guided only by the currents. 

An unexpected twist

On the last day of trial, we heard from the defendants, Davis (Black, “not gonna tase him,” “no no no”) and Thompson (white, tase tase, bang bang bang bang). I figured I already knew what both would say.  But to be beyond surprise is maybe the saddest thing in the world, and so I was, happily, surprised.

As Irish methodically grilled Davis on what happened that day, something curious happened. Davis started admitting mistakes. He started small ­— admitting that he failed to follow his training on emotionally disturbed persons, which would have dictated that the officers close the door to the apartment to create distance. His admissions got bigger — was it a mistake for Thompson to tase Trawick? Yes, and it was a surprise to Davis that he did so.

And then, the big one. Was it a mistake for Thompson to shoot Trawick? Says Davis: Yes.

A murmur spread through the courtroom. One of the journalists sitting near me asked, “Did he just break the blue wall?” I whispered, “He did indeed.” 

For the rest of his testimony, Davis seemed like the air went out of him. He had crossed a line, and he knew it. There was no coming back. And I had to give him credit — he tried to stop his partner from killing Trawick, and then fessed up to it even when he had to know it would ruin his career. After a few more questions, Davis’s lawyer finished and we took a bathroom break.

After gossiping in the hallway for about 15 minutes, we re-entered the fake courtroom and took our seats. All rise for the NYPD employee! Be seated. Now, Thompson’s lawyer, Cop Lawyer, had his turn at Davis.

The tenor of Cop Lawyer’s questioning was worlds away from The Old Man’s. Cop Lawyer immediately began rapid fire spitting Yes or No questions at Davis. Understand that in a real courtroom, many of Cop Lawyer’s questions would be disallowed, because Cop Lawyer had a tendency to make statements of fact that were not already in evidence (“So you followed your training, right?” would be an immediate objection/sustained).

After a bit, Cop Lawyer and Davis got into a steady rhythm. Cop Lawyer would make a statement followed by, “Right?” or “Yes or no?” and Davis would quickly respond in the affirmative. I saw the bomb coming before it dropped. Cop Lawyer moved closer and closer to the moment where Thompson shot Trawick before – “And so it was necessary for Officer Thompson to shoot Mr. Trawick, right?” “Yes.”

This time the murmur was a wave. My own jaw dropped, and as I looked around me, most jaws in the room were similarly agape. Somehow, in that 15- minute interval, Davis had been convinced to take back his prior admission. Right before our eyes, the Blue Wall had been rebuilt. You could feel the rage in the crowd, even from many of the journalists. How could anyone take this process seriously when this is the result?

Obviously, I don’t know what happened during that bathroom break. But I am also not an idiot, and the odds are at least even that somebody got to Davis. In a real court, that would likely be witness tampering, but we already know that laws and rules disappear when we enter this room. In all likelihood, we will never know why Davis flipped on the most critical issue of this entire case.

CCRB got another shot at Davis after Cop Lawyer finished. To my frustration, CCRB didn’t ask the obvious question: who did you speak to during the bathroom break? (I suspect such a question may have run afoul of Maldonado’s “politeness” rules.) Instead, CCRB, via Applewhite, asked Davis why he changed his testimony. Davis leaned heavily into the farce of this, claiming he had just thought more about his answer. Incredulous, Applewhite asked if this was the first time Davis ever thought about whether his partner was right to shoot Trawick. Davis, who at least had the decency to look ashamed, replied, “Yes.”

The final day

After this fiasco, the rest of the day seemed tame. Thompson testified. He stuck to the script, and was snarky and impatient with Applewhite. So was Maldonado, who at one point told Applewhite that his “questions are very confusing.” Thompson’s most annoying feature was asking to be shown the video whenever CCRB pressed him on specifics, as he was scared to say something that could be proven wrong. Of course, witnesses don’t get to make requests, but nobody seemed to care. Indeed, Thompson’s lawyer kept claiming CCRB was trying to give Thompson a “memory test,” which, yes, this is about what Thompson remembers. It is a memory test.

Thompson’s testimony also featured a valiant attempt to pretend that he had no training at all, in anything. Whenever CCRB asked if he followed his training (which he didn’t), Thompson became metaphysical, questioning what “training” even means when every situation was different. Slippery as an eel, CCRB couldn’t pin him down. Maldonado looked pleased.

Maldonado initially tried to get closing statements done in writing, which would mean the public would never see them, since the NYPD releases no documents from these “trials.” CCRB threw a fit and she backed down. The police lawyers spent their time smearing Trawick however they could: He was nuts, but not nuts enough to be an EDP, he was a criminal, he was a threat, oh and by the way Your Esteemed Honor Judge, CCRB blew the statute of limitations so really we shouldn’t even be here. Applewhite tried his best, but couldn’t overcome the look of disgust Maldonado had whenever he spoke.

Before the curtain fell, Maldonado gave a brief speech about the “unique” legal issues she was facing. None of the issues in this case are unique, and indeed, Maldonado ruled on them already in the Pantaleo case. But in that matter, the Mayor and Police Commissioner had already decided that Pantaleo needed to go, so Maldonado was free to use a legal standard that made it easier to find misconduct. Now, the powers that be have already exonerated Thompson and Davis, so Maldonado needs to memory-hole her prior ruling.

At the end of the day, a Black cop with 16 years on the force tried to stop his trigger-happy white rookie partner from killing a Black man. He failed. Davis tried to repent for his sins – he tried to tell the truth. But he is a weak man, and again, he failed. Thompson is a murderer, and Davis is a coward. Both of them will have long careers with the New York Police Department.

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