By Colleen Long
NEW YORK (AP) — As an undercover detective in New York, the Polish-born Wojciech Braszczok’s job was to investigate members of Occupy Wall Street. Going by the name “Al,” he hung around, blended in and was even arrested as a protester. He didn’t carry a gun or a badge or identification bearing his real name.
“Basically I had no contact with the police department, except for my handler,” he testified this week.
But that all ended when he joined a motorcycle ride in Manhattan in September 2013 that devolved into pandemonium with an SUV driver beaten bloody. Now, the 34-year-old is being tried on charges of gang assault and other crimes for his role in the melee that is putting an unwanted light on how the nation’s largest police department cultivates and supervises officers assigned to undercover duty.
“The nature of the work is secret, but at the end of the day, you’re still a police officer, you have a duty,” said Nick Casale, a former officer-turned-private eye. “You can blow your cover if a crime is about to be committed.”
The 35,000-officer department won’t reveal how many officers work undercover, but it’s believed their ranks are well in the hundreds, if not the thousands.
Supervisors often seek to recruit officers who are tough enough to deal with the stresses of living a double life, and who speak foreign languages or have other skills that would allow them to escape detection in narcotics, gun-trafficking, terrorism and other investigations.
Recruits are diverted into special training programs and given a cover name and a cover story. Depending on how deep the undercover assignment, any contact with regular police officers can end there.
Braszczok joined the force a dozen years ago, first on patrol before he was chosen to work narcotics as an undercover. He later was transferred to the department’s Intelligence Division — a unit tasked with security for the mayor but also handles confidential informants and “infiltrates domestic groups who could cause threats to public safety,” according to testimony.
He was given a new name, Al Malokovitch, and a new investigative target: members of Occupy Wall Street, the protest movement that swarmed lower Manhattan in 2011 and sparked similar anti-wealth gap movements around the globe. When he was arrested, his handler, another undercover assigned as his contact to the police world, took care of the arrest.
The handler, known in court only as Undercover 7047, testified that Braszczok was required to check in at the beginning and end of his shift. And if he witnessed a crime, he had a duty to report it and to get involved if necessary, even if it meant identifying himself as a detective.
On his day off, Braszczok decided to join in the motorcycle ride, which had nothing to do with Occupy. He texted his handler that it was going to be “mayhem.” Prosecutors have suggested Braszczok and the other bikers had made the West Side Highway a personal playground, popping wheelies, slapping car hoods and terrorizing SUV driver Alexian Lien and his wife and toddler.
Stopped on the road, Lien says he feared for his life so he drove off, running over a biker. Prosecutors say Braszczok was among the bikers who forced his Range Rover to a stop on a side street.
Braszczok testified that he followed Lien because he wanted to “stop the car from running more people over.” He heard a bang and saw the SUV window break, and then started to fear for his safety, so he left.
He said he regretted not calling for help.
The handler said Braszczok didn’t call for two days, and he didn’t say that he’d been at the scene of the assault until after helmet-camera videos were posted online.
Eleven men were indicted in the melee; the others have pleaded guilty to charges including assault and riot and received or are facing sentences ranging from probation to up to four years in prison. Lien was not charged. The biker Lien hit, Edwin Mieses, was paralyzed.
Braszczok is also facing a departmental trial where he could be fired.
Associated Press writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.
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