An Innocent Tourist Gets “A Break”

In the early days of my career as a lawyer, I spent a lot of time in the 34 Precinct.  The cops had a curious relationship with the residents, where everyone was a perp. Eventually.  Things have quieted down quite a bit since then, after the crack days of cold bodies appearing in the park every morning, but it apparently hasn’t done much to change the attitude.

Via  Jim Dwyer at the Times, a Christmas tourist, Aaron Vansintjan, from Belgium by way of McGill University in Montreal, wanted only to meet his friends at the Cloisters, a museum of medieval art in Fort Tryon Park, at 190th Street.  Silly tourists.

The day being fine, he decided to scramble up. He carried a Macy’s shopping bag with two white shirts he had just bought, and two books from his school’s library. He was also listening to music. Near the street, he reached a terraced area, and paused.

“I was catching my breath for about 15 seconds,” he said. “Someone ran at me with a gun drawn, screamed at me to get down to the ground, pushed me onto my knees, and then put my face in the ground.”

He was led up the stairs in handcuffs by a plainclothes police officer and others in uniform. “I was under the impression that it was very illegal to walk up the hill,” Mr. Vansintjan said.

That’s the funny thing about not having the slightest clue why a guy is pointing a gun at you. The cops start with the assumption that you’re guilty, and therefore know exactly why they nabbed you. This bit of confusion can, and often does, lead to a problematic reaction.  Would the New York City police actually shoot to kill a Belgian tourist for climbing on rocks if he’s not compliant?  You never know.

As he was being held on the street, he said, “they told me someone had reported the theft of a Macy’s bag.” He protested that he had been shopping and that he was on his way to the Cloisters. Moreover, he said, his hands were turning purple from the tight squeeze of the handcuffs. They were loosened slightly. The officers suggested that Mr. Vansintjan, who is 5 feet 10 and weighs 130 pounds, had resisted arrest, he said.

The friends waiting for him were astonished to see Mr. Vansintjan surrounded by eight police officers. “They came over and the police told them to get back,” he said. “I said, ‘Those are my friends.’ An officer asked me, ‘Oh, are they your accomplices?’ I said, ‘No, we were going to the museum.’ 

Just another day in the 34, where friends become accomplices and shopping at Macy’s carries risks.

The man who reported the break-in was driven past Mr. Vansintjan and identified him as a burglar. At the station house, Mr. Vansintjan was unshackled and taken to an interrogation room. “A detective asked me to tell my side of things, and said, ‘If you are honest, we will be easier on you’,” Mr. Vansintjan said. He said he was not told of his right to a lawyer, or to remain silent.

The criminal apprehended and the case almost solved. The only left to do was get the confession. Of course, at the Huntley hearing, the detective would pull out his Miranda card and explain calmly how he read the tourist his rights, one at a time, after which the tourist acknowledged he understood them and confessed voluntarily. Because that’s what they do in the 34.

“After I told him what had happened, the detective said, ‘You know, what the other guy is saying doesn’t match up with your story,’ ” Mr. Vansintjan said, an old ruse used to trick people into admissions. “I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”

The poor tourist, however, couldn’t confess because he didn’t have the slightest clue what they were talking about. He didn’t know of the alleged break-in, or the show-up identification. He didn’t know of any crime aside from climbing rocks.  The old ruse doesn’t work when the perp has no clue what it’s all about.

While this was going on, the man who reported the burglary told the police that there had been no break-in, and that people were out to get him, according to [police spokesman, Paul J.] Browne. He was taken to a psychiatric hospital, Mr. Browne said.

Oops. There was no crime. Just another psycho in the 34.

Just before he was released the evening of Dec. 22, Mr. Vansintjan said, a sergeant told him that an antique pocketknife he had been carrying “was a problem.”

“I knew it was legal,” the student said.

“He said they were going to give me a break, so it wouldn’t go on my record, and let me go.”

And that’s life in the 34.  They seized a tourist who did nothing wrong (provided you forgive him climbing on rocks) for a crime that never happened.  And being good guys, the cops gave him a break and let him go.  No harm, no foul. No record.

And there’s a cop walking around the 34 carrying a cool antique pocketknife he took off a perp.

It’s been almost 30 years since the first time I walked around the 34 Precinct, and it’s comforting to know that nothing has changed.  Not even for the tourists.

12 comments on “An Innocent Tourist Gets “A Break”

  1. Steve Shaw

    Here is the detective number at the 34th precinct…(212) 927-0823
    I called and simply ask if they knew who Aaron was and got a huh? I refered the detective to this web site and was told they ‘don’t read blogs’. Maybe we could get a few more calls going to this number and let them know someone is watching. I also tried to find a number or place to post this article with the Mayor’s office but didn’t see anything. If anyone knows, please post. I get what really pissed me off is the stolen pocketknife and the implied threat that was associated with the confiscation of that knife. More heavy handed bullshit…WTF.

  2. SHG

    I am not a fan of calling and harrassing anyone. Since the number is public, no reason to delete it, but this comes from Jim Dwyer’s article in the New York Times, so regardless of whether they see it here, the point will be made.  Not that it will change much of anything, unfortunately.

  3. Thom

    Do you know if a map of this precinct is available? I looked on Google but there didn’t seem to be any maps. It would be nice to know which parts of NYC to avoid when I visit.

  4. SHG

    Don’t know, but if you’re worried about avoiding cop in the 34, then don’t go anywhere near the 30.

  5. SHG

    Never having been a fan of department stores or malls, I never go there. Nothing to do with this post. Just sayin’.

  6. Steve Shaw

    Thom…I don’t know if your post was rhetorical or not but even Sodom and Gomorrah had one righteous man…and even he gave up his daughter to protect his house guest. There must be a few good cops in that precinct ??? Now whether they’d be willing to step up and stay the hand of a bad cop is another question all together. If you decide to put yourself in the vicinity, be aware that history is not on your side.

  7. Meredith Wright

    Boy, I’ve climbed up rocks to get to the Cloisters before – don’t know it that was the same spot. How lucky I wasn’t a Belgian tourist!

  8. Law Prof

    I last visited NYC in . . . ummmmm. . . OH, I know. March 1975. Haven’t been back. Don’t miss it at all. In London the police know that American tourists are unlikely burglars. They are polite to white people too.

    Then there’s NYC. I prefer flyoverland.

  9. Kevin

    How can a cop who covers up for a corrupt cop still be good? Is there such a thing as a good cop? I submit that there is only such a thing as a good ex-cop.

  10. SHG

    It’s long been a very real concern that a cop can feel that he’s a “good cop” while saying/doing nothing when he sees a “bad cop” do harm.  It cannot be rationalized.  And yet I think it’s counterproductive to see police officers as so one dimensional.  If the purpose is to change cop culture, then we can’t hate them and expect cops to be persuaded to change.

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