Residents and police react at Sunset Park Town Hall

Eligia Santilla sat with her family in the front row of folding chairs at the Sunset Park Town Hall, her 17-year-old daughter Cindy Daza, sitting by her side. The mother of five sat stony-faced while watching the cell phone video of Cindy and her older brother Jonathan being grabbed and arrested being projected on the gymnasium wall, in front of hundreds of neighbors from Sunset Park and around the city.

“I felt paralyzed and helpless,” said Santilla of how she felt on September 14 as police arrested her children for not packing up the family’s fruit stand quickly enough and then refusing to answer questions about Cindy’s age. “I wanted to get closer, but I was being threatened with arrest. It was as if I was kidnapped and held hostage. Ironically, it was the police [hurting them] because I would have normally called the police for help.”

Santilla had the chance to ask the NYPD for help, though, at the town hall on Wednesday, October 1.

She was the last resident to speak, walking right up to NYPD Chief of Department Philip Banks III and pleading in Spanish for him to answer her question: “When will it change? This can’t keep going on. What changes will be made now?”

In response, Banks – who spoke on behalf of the NYPD at large and in place of Commissioner William Bratton – said that he has “the utmost confidence in [72nd Precinct] Captain Thomas Ng,” who began his job in July, and has transferred a second captain into the neighborhood, as well.

“We’re reviewing officers with excessive reports to the Civilian Complaint Review Board and reviewing all officers’ temperaments,” added Banks. “We are here to advise, guide and counsel [local police]. Changes made will happen together, but not overnight.”

Those words of assurance weren’t enough, though, for many of the hundreds in attendance at the community town hall.

“Not all cops are bad, but this is what we call pigs,” shouted an attendee while watching the videos.

“Women didn’t come to the town hall today because they are afraid [of the police] officer who assaulted the pregnant woman,” said Claudia Galicia, president of the Sunset Park Latino Democrats, referring to Sandra Amezquita, who was arrested belly-down for trying to comfort her son during his own arrest, allegedly for carrying a knife, on September 20.

“Mexican women know him as being abusive and they are afraid he’s going to come back even more angry,” Galicia said. “Please take him out of the community.”

“If you shoot an unarmed human being, that’s murder. It doesn’t matter if you carry a badge,” added Nicholas Heyward Sr., whose 13-year-old son Nicholas was shot by a cop in Boerum Hill 20 years ago while playing with a group of kids, all holding colorful plastic toy guns. “Good cops? I’d like to meet them.”

Heyward was one of the members of the 31 families of people slain or injured by NYPD officers who attended the town hall, both in solidarity with Sunset Parkers and in the hopes of taking steps towards finally getting a sense of the justice that they so crave.

“We need to fix the whole department from top to bottom,” said Iris Baez, whose son Anthony died of asphyxiation and acute asthma in 1994 in the Bronx following a struggle with officers who arrested him and his brother for continuing to play street football after accidentally hitting a police car with the ball. “Bratton has to go.”

Bratton was NYPD commissioner in 1994 – when both Heyward and Baez’s sons died.

That fact is why “Bratton has to go” is included among his list of demands, said Dennis Flores, founder of local police watchdog group El Grito de Sunset Park, which filmed and published online the cell phone videos of the Daza family’s arrests, as well as the belly-down arrest of Amezquita, five-months pregnant.

“What [Bratton] has done to people of color is unacceptable,” Flores said. “The last time he came to a community meeting in 1995, he called the family ‘fools.’ What kind of man does that? What kind of commissioner does that?”

Flores and El Grito are also demanding that all charges be dropped, all officers involved in both cases be fired, 72nd Precinct Captain Ng resign, and that a “blue ribbon panel” be formed to investigate both cases.

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson has already committed his office to investigating Officer Joseph Degen – currently on paid modified duty – who arrested Amezquita and shoved her friend.

“This is just the beginning of a dialogue that will continue,” said Ginger Lopez of the New York City Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, which co-hosted the event. “We want this to be peaceful. . . This is the people’s movement for a town hall.”

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