[Introduction:] Disturbing questions about a controversial NYPD surveillance program. It's called VIPER [Video Interactive Patrol Enhancement Response] -- cops monitor and videotape locations in and around housing projects. Their work became headline news recently when a police surveillance tape of a man committing suicide in a Bronx lobby made its way onto the Internet. But the Eyewitness News Investigators have uncovered evidence suggesting that incident may be part of a bigger problem -- a problem in the way VIPER is run. Sarah Wallace is here with her exclusive report.
[Sarah Wallace:] You have to wonder, does the NYPD have something to hide regarding its VIPER division? For the past week, we've been trying to get questions raised by our investigation answered, but the Office of The Commissioner has refused to respond. Could it be the department doesn't want the public to find out who's watching out for their safety?
Sgt. John Marchisotto, Former VIPER Supervisor[, says]: "They're there because they were involved in shootings, they were involved in criminal activities." He's talking about VIPER 5, located in the Stapleton Houses on Staten Island. Last year, Sergeant John Marchisotto says he asked for a transfer to Staten Island Housing from Brooklyn to be closer to home. The only opening was VIPER 5. He says he was stunned to find that many of the officers monitoring cameras were on "modified duty" -- meaning they are facing disciplinary or criminal charges.
A former high-ranking internal affairs [IAD] investigator puts it this way: "Mostly in VIPER they have their modified police officers that have been jammed up, some arrested." Sarah Wallace [asks]: "Perception of it?" Former IAD Investigator [responds]: "It's a dumping ground." Sarah Wallace [asks]: "That's well-known?" Former IAD Investigator [responds]: "Oh, absolutely."
[Sarah Wallace:] That's not true with all VIPER cops -- some are there for medical reasons. But a police source checked out seven VIPER units for us in different parts of the city, and says he was told that the majority of officers in all of those units -- including some supervisors -- are on modified duty. If that's so, then in many cases cops who are accused of criminal activity themselves are assigned to monitor criminal activity. And in a highly sensitive position -- you're dealing with people's privacy.
Former IAD Investigator: "I think I share the sentiment of others. If this was the Upper East Side it wouldn't be happening. No one would have cameras on. But because it's the so-called projects, no one really cares and it doesn't matter. We can film you, and have entertainment, and do what we want and no one cares."
[Sarah Wallace:] Entertainment? Sergeant Marchisotto claims he personally saw another supervisor use tenants for entertainment. Sgt. John Marchisotto: "He was showing a couple of cops that were working for him a video of two people having sex in the stairwell." Sarah Wallace: "They were just getting kicks out of watching . . . ?" Sgt. John Marchisotto: "Getting kicks out of watching residents of the housing development having sex."
City Councilman Hiram Montserrate, retired from the NYPD, was assigned to a Queens VIPER unit briefly for medical reasons. [He says:] "Some of the stuff I witnessed was, what I would term as clearly inappropriate use of the cameras in their surveillances -- whether they are looking into people's windows or some of the male police officers looking at women. Clearly that is disturbing."
[Sarah Wallace:] What is most disturbing perhaps is the issue of securing the tapes. The department is still investigating who leaked that horrific tape of the suicide in a Bronx lobby. But none of the insiders we spoke with is surprised that happened.
Sarah Wallace: "How accessible are those tapes?" [Councilman Monserrate:] "The tapes are very accessible." Sarah Wallace: "They're not safeguarded?" [Councilman Monserrate:] "They're not safeguarded. They're basically laying on a bookcase."
[Sarah Wallace:] As for training -- any type of formal training for procedures and the equipment? [Councilman Monserrate:] "No one trains you. I learned from the cops that were working there that actually learned how to use it by being there."
[Sarah Wallace:] The Manhattan borough president recently held a one-day hearing on VIPER. C. Virginia Fields says the NYPD didn't send anyone, so she sent the commissioner a letter asking a series of questions about VIPER procedures. C. Virginia Fields, Manhattan Borough President: "So far, we have not received a response from the commissioner where we have raised all of these questions, and I do intend to hear from him sooner rather than later. But, as we speak, I have not heard from the commissioner."
[Sarah Wallace:] Marchisotto says he reported many of his concerns about his VIPER unit, and ended up transferred: "There is absolutely nothing here at all to do, but just sit in a chair like this, and just get paid $70,000 a year to just look around a room, and do nothing" [Monsterrate said].
[Sarah Wallace:] But there's much more to his story. Friday, allegations of retaliation, and an inside look at an internal affairs interrogation. Do they really want to hear the truth? By the way, Sgt. John Marchisotto has been asked by the Manhattan borough president to testify at a public hearing on the VIPER division Friday in Harlem.
(TV report on WABC-New York by Sarah Wallace. Air-date unknown. Also published on-line.)
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