By Clifford Michel, originally published in THE CITY
Brooklyn residents sue enclave’s association to see records, including those related to alleged civil rights violations by their security force.
The NYPD is not New York City’s only police force under scrutiny over reports of misconduct.
A string of legal cases filed against members of the private Sea Gate Police Department, who patrol a gated community at the tip of Coney Island, allege some officers have:
- Hassled nonwhite residents who fail to promptly produce ID
- Tailed vehicles outside the enclave’s gates
- Roughly arrested a fisherman
- Discriminated against black members of the force.
In the latest such lawsuit to hit the nonprofit Sea Gate Association, a now-retired NYPD cop filed a complaint last year alleging he was confronted half a mile away from the gated community by a gun-drawing Sea Gate police officer, an incident captured on surveillance video.
It’s one of at least seven state and federal cases that have involved members of Sea Gate law enforcement, resulting in payouts of $85,000 reported to homeowners since 2016. Two of those lawsuits are still pending.
Residents of the private Coney Island enclave are in an uproar over the cash settlements and other spending, which they say their homeowners’ association has kept under a shroud of secrecy.
Olga Scarcella, who has owned her home in Sea Gate for 18 years, filed suit in Brooklyn Supreme Court in February against the Sea Gate Association, demanding records she contends state law requires nonprofit associations to show to their members. Two other residents are supporting her in her case, the Brooklyn Paper reported.
A hearing in the homeowner lawsuit is scheduled for June 25.
Dues-paying homeowners in the 5,000-resident community say their request for spending records and board meeting minutes was met in early January with a demand from the association president that they sign a non-disclosure agreement first.
While homeowners receive annual financial statements prepared by an independent auditor hired by the association, Scarcella and allied residents contend they are due more.
“I’ve been requesting payroll, legal expenses, settlements, I am a homeowner in good standing, I’m paying my dues. Therefore I am entitled to that information,” Scarcella told THE CITY in February shortly after filing her legal complaint. “It’s very simple.”
An attorney for the association suggested that it’s Scarcella who’s been uncooperative.
“It is the Association’s position that the lawsuit has been filed prematurely and is unwarranted,” said Arthur Muller, counsel to the Sea Gate Association. “The homeowner in that action has been advised numerous times that the Association intends to comply with its legal disclosure obligations under the law. Despite the Association’s offers to permit her access to records, she has recently refused to proceed with the process.”
As for the lawsuits, Muller said that any settlement in a case “does not indicate a party is conceding or admitting any allegations of wrongdoing.”
He added: “The Association and SGPD deny any allegations of discrimination. Both the Association and SGPD oppose unlawful discrimination of any kind.”
Retired NYPD on Force
Court and association records show $30,000 paid in a 2016 legal judgment and another $55,000 in a settlement in 2018 and to former officers with the Sea Gate police force, both black, in federal civil rights cases in which they alleged discriminatory treatment.
The private police force has about two dozen officers, many of them retired members of the NYPD.
A local resident settled in 2015 for an undisclosed sum after he alleged the Sea Gate police arrested him for trespassing in his own neighborhood for failing to show identification at the gate, Brooklyn Federal Court records show.
In March, a judge ruled that the City of New York must join the Sea Gate Association as a defendant in connection with its defense of yet another federal civil rights lawsuit — filed last year by a man who was arrested while fishing in Coney Island Creek Park, a city park that overlaps with Sea Gate’s property.
Hoa Lay alleges, in a complaint filed against the association and two officers, that he was arrested with excessive force on false charges of assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, obstructing government administration and trespassing.
The Sea Gate Association and the two police officers denied the allegations against them in a legal filing last year.
A black detective with the Sea Gate Police Department, Curtis Rodgers, said that a culture of impunity rules the police force, fueled by retired NYPD officers in the ranks.
“If they decide that they don’t like you that day, you’re going to be in for harassment, they are run and fueled by their own ego,” said Rodgers, 41.
Allegations of Slur Use
The settled federal civil rights lawsuits from black former Sea Gate police officers both name Jeffrey Fortunato, chief of the Sea Gate police, as a defendant in addition to the Sea Gate Association and other members of the force.
One of the former officers who sued, Vingrove Thomas, was hired in 2007. He said things were going well for him as a sergeant until Fortunato hired a fellow ex-NYPD cop, Jeffrey Schneider, in 2012, according to his complaint filed in Brooklyn federal court in 2017.
Thomas declined to comment, citing a non-disparagement agreement with the Sea Gate Association as part of his settlement.
Thomas claimed in his complaint that he and a female officer overheard Schneider refer to him as a “militant n—-r sergeant” for having to report to him. Thomas complained to Fortunato, according to the legal papers, and Schneider stopped working at Sea Gate — only to be rehired and promoted by Fortunato a few years later.
Thomas alleged in the complaint that retaliation and discrimination by Fortunato, Schneider and another officer — who served as both his supervisors and his union representative — culminated in his losing his Sea Gate job after he left early one day to attend ordered military training with the New York State Guard.
The three defendant police officers and the Sea Gate Association denied in a court filing that Schneider had made the offensive remarks Thomas had alleged. They also asserted that Thomas was subjected to disciplinary action “for failure to perform his required job functions.”
A racial slur also featured in the 2013 federal discrimination and retaliation complaint filed by former Sea Gate officer Christopher Simmons.
Simmons alleged that he was passed over for a promotion and then suspended after he complained to Fortunato that the Sea Gate Association’s then-president called him a “schwartze” — a Yiddish slur for “black.” He alleged he was demoted and ultimately fired after filing a complaint with the state Division on Human Rights.
Simmons, 57, told THE CITY Wednesday that “wasn’t satisfied at all” with the outcome of his lawsuit, but that his lawyer encouraged him to accept a settlement.
Simmons, who left New York City to live in upstate Dutchess County, said there simply aren’t enough accountability measures on the police force and that the association puts too much faith in its police chief.
“They need a lot of reforms there because a fish stinks from the head,” Simmons told THE CITY Wednesday. “The association just believes whatever Fortunato says.”
Fortunato, another officer and the Sea Gate Association denied the allegations in court papers. In 2016, the court awarded Simmons a $30,000 judgment agreed upon by the defendants.
Incident Outside Gates
The most recent lawsuit involving the Sea Gate Police Department was filed last August by Albert Dodson, a veteran NYPD officer. He first shared his account with the New York Post.
Dodson alleged in a complaint filed in Brooklyn state Supreme Court last August that Sea Gate officer Darrien Phillips pulled a gun on him after trailing his car along Coney Island’s Neptune Avenue, leading to a confrontation nearly a mile away from the gated community.
“I was never in Sea Gate,” said Dodson, who visits Coney Island regularly to visit his sister.
Phillips is also a defendant in the Lay suit, which is ongoing. He did not respond to a message left by THE CITY.
“What happened to me was a travesty,” Dodson told THE CITY. “I could’ve lost my life.”
Dodson recounted that he was driving home from a YMCA in Coney Island when he noticed a red pickup truck flashing his high-beams behind him. He thought he was driving too slowly, so he pulled over and asked Phillips if everything was okay. Phillips responded, “if everything was okay with [Dodson],” according to the complaint.
Phillips — seen in surveillance video of the incident wearing a windbreaker with “POLICE” on the back — entered the convenience store behind Dodson, and also wore a shield, according to Dodson’s account in court papers and in an interview.
Dodson said that Phillips then put his hand on his firearm in its holster and looked him up and down.
Dodson asked, “What are you doing? Why are you grabbing your gun and looking me up and down like that?”
“Because I can,” Phillips replied. Dodson then identified himself as NYPD.
Dodson said he realized that Phillips wasn’t with the NYPD and asked him where he worked. Phillips responded by taking out his gun and placing it back in his holster, twice, the lawsuit alleged.
Dodson tried to exit the store to retrieve his police identification card, but Phillips grabbed Dodson and the two struggled, according to Dodson, court papers and video of the incident. The lawsuit contends that Phillips then pulled out his firearm and took Dodson’s gun away.
After police from the 60th Precinct came as well as a Sea Gate sergeant, according to Dodson, he drove himself to Sea Gate for questioning by the Sea Gate police. Dodson tried to file a police report, but the NYPD refused to take it — “as a professional courtesy to the Sea Gate Police Department,” his court complaint alleges.
He also called the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau, according to his complaint and his account to THE CITY, following NYPD protocol. He alleged in legal papers that the commanding officer at Sea Gate warned him against making the call.
In court papers, the association, police department and Phillips deny Phillips trailed Dodson’s vehicle, unholstered his gun, or assaulted Dodson — or that Sea Gate’s commanding officer warned Dodson against calling NYPD Internal Affairs.
The Nassau County resident was placed on modified duty after the incident, after being brought up on charges for failing to follow the instructions of a police officer. That delayed his plans to retire, he said — and broke his faith in the NYPD.
“I don’t believe in the department anymore at all. My safety was an issue and no one took issue. I spoke to one union guy and he laughed on the phone,” Dodson said.
Dodson’s lawsuit demands an unspecified sum. The ex-cop told THE CITY: “I want Phillips fired. He shouldn’t be on the street.”
Scarcella is one of about 100 homeowners who have joined the Sea Gate Homeowners Initiative Group, an effort to seek increased transparency from the Sea Gate Association across the board.
“The reality is the governing body has been very uncooperative in releasing information and documentation and even just answers to questions,” said Gary Daniels, a 67-year-old financial consultant who was born and raised in Sea Gate.
Starting in November 2019, Scarcella, began requesting board meeting minutes from 2019 and detailed financial statements from 2017 and 2018. Sea Gate Association leaders at a Jan. 5 meeting said they’d have to sign a non-disclosure agreement to review the documents.
Other homeowners, including Michael Krichevsky, said the association’s community manager told them a different story. He asked to see financial records for 2014 and “they said only a lawyer can review those.”
SGA’s president, David Wynn, told the six homeowners he met with in January that they shouldn’t worry about payouts because insurance covers it, according to Scarcella and Daniels, who attended.
Scarcella isn’t sold.
She points out that financial and tax statements include a line that references “settlements.”
“We asked about that and he didn’t answer, which tells us that something is not right. Because if the insurance company pays out the money, why do we homeowners pay for it?”
She suggested one potential answer to her own question:
“It’s because of discrimination, liability and negligence.”
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