Terence O’Toole didn’t mince words last week when he called a 16-year-old bicycle theft suspect a “scourge on the Bronx,” and justified a viral video of one of his 50th Precinct police officers repeatedly punching that teenager in the head by showing The Riverdale Press his lengthy rap sheet.
“He’s going to fight with police for the rest of his life, guaranteed,” O’Toole said at the time. “And the next cop that he encounters may have to shoot him because he is going to fail to comply. Because that is going to be his lifestyle forever.”
Alfred Burns, who is now awaiting trial on Rikers Island, had some previous run-ins with the police, according to O’Toole. In the video shot earlier this month in Marble Hill, the teen got physical with one of the officers and, the precinct’s top cop said, the use of force from that officer’s partner was warranted.
The comments were surprising to some, especially in social media, where debates over alleged police brutality rage on. In fact, police treatment of suspects — especially minority suspects — has become so widely criticized, the national anthem at NFL games has been a hotbed of controversy as players kneel or join arms in solidarity against what they say is institutional mistreatment by law enforcement.
But not everyone was critical of O’Toole. Some, including current and former members of the New York Police Department — took to Facebook to herald O’Toole as “a real cop’s boss.”
One of those people was Lt. Richard Khalaf, a cop working in Midtown who posted online saying he appreciated O’Toole would defend his officer after a video of Burns’ arrest went viral, showing one of the officers punching the teenager in the back of the head 13 times in a little more than two minutes.
“Nothing more empowering than a commanding officer who has the backs of those who work for him,” Khalaf said. “I don’t know this man, but I respect him as a leader.”
Khalaf himself is no stranger to the news. Last year, one of his subordinates filed a lawsuit against the NYPD alleging the department’s “English only” policy targeted her for speaking Spanish at work. At the time, Khalaf told reporters that officer, Jessenia Guzman, was “very disrespectful” to supervisors.
This past May, however, Khalaf found his way into New York tabloids again after a run-in with a Metropolitan Transportation Authority clerk after claiming that clerk failed to open the gate in time for Khalaf to stop a shoplifter he was chasing.
Some other posts, like one from Peter Calamera, who is a musician, according to his Facebook profile, levied praise at O’Toole for not taking the stance of top NYPD leadership, which has touted increased transparency, community policing and improved training techniques to minimize use of force when it isn’t absolutely necessary.
“Finally the NYPD leadership is growing a set,” he said. “This is a man I would want to work for any day.”
Elizabeth McGrory Manning who was a police officer between 1992 and 2015, according to her LinkedIn profile, stated on social media she was proud to have worked for O’Toole after his response to the incident, calling him ”a real cop’s boss.”
But there are some community members who not only have expressed their disgust for how Burns was treated, but they want both O’Toole and the officer who threw the punches to be fired.
“If the NYPD is serious about changing its approach to policing, then it must recognize that this incident compromises the trust and goodwill of the communities it serves,” wrote Ryan Elivo, a member of North Bronx Racial Justice, in an opinion piece published in this week’s Riverdale Press. “We will not stand by when police brutality occurs in our neighborhoods. We will not stand by when a police officer assaults a minor, risking brain injury and death. We will not stand by when a commanding officer of the 50th Precinct makes statements that can be interpreted as an incitement to his own officers to shoot a boy he dismisses as a ‘scourge of the Bronx.’”
Elivo wrote that on behalf of not just the community advocacy group, but also religious leaders from St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, New Day Church and the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture.
For O’Toole’s part, he said he has had enough publicity for one story, claiming to have received several phone calls last weekend thanking him for his comments.
“Apparently the story went nationwide, I don’t know who did that,” he said. “I got calls from people I’ve known from all over the country thanking me for what I said.”
Despite being aware of the criticisms from groups like North Bronx Racial Justice, O’Toole said he hasn’t experienced any blowback from his superiors in the NYPD. He singled out one of the group’s members, Jennifer Scarlott, who commented critically on The Press’ website about Burns’ arrest and O’Toole’s comments.
“Yeah, Jennifer disagrees with me,” he said. “That’s fine, she is allowed to disagree with me.”
The incident that started all this took place Oct. 6 around 9 a.m., after 50th Precinct cops told Burns — who they say stole a bicycle — he was under arrest. He reportedly tackled an officer near West 225th Street in Marble Hill, and tried to put his hands around the officer’s neck. That officer’s partner then jumped on top of him, which is where the video circulating the internet picks up.
Burns, pinned between the two officers, is not able to move as the top officer punches him in the head 13 times, to the dismay of the crowd of onlookers who gathered to see the kerfuffle.
Afterward, O’Toole told The Press that police are allowed to use force when necessary. “It looks awful, but it’s lawful,” he said. “If you are placed under arrest, then you comply.”
Three cops were involved in the incident, including an unidentified female officer who appears to stop the officer from punching in the video in order to put handcuffs on Burns. One of the officers, although O’Toole didn’t say which, was expected to be back on duty by Monday, but the other would be out sick for two weeks.
The incident, however, is under investigation by the department’s internal affairs unit.
Burns has since been charged with resisting arrest, criminal possession of stolen property, assaulting a police officer and petty larceny.