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Police officers in the Town of Wallkill, N.Y., harassed women and stopped motorists out of revenge — or for no reason at all, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer charged in a lawsuit filed Thursday. Saying that the department is out of control and a menace to the population, Spitzer asked a federal court to appoint a receiver to oversee reforms in the department. He also asked for an injunction blocking the baseless stops of motorists and money damages. “The police department of the Town of Wallkill poses a serious and continuing danger to both the citizens of Wallkill and to all other New Yorkers who travel through the jurisdiction,” states the complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. “This danger is not only to these New Yorkers’ constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, but, increasingly to their right to be free of physical menace and harm at the hands of certain officers of the Wallkill Police Department.” Wallkill is a town of approximately 24,000 residents in Orange County. Since the police department was formed in 1989, it has grown to include 24 full-time officers and several part-time officers. The suit alleges that Wallkill maintains “a police force of untrained and unsupervised men and women armed with guns and the authority of police officers” who abuse that authority “by stopping women drivers for the purpose of soliciting dates, by pulling over motorists simply for sport,” and by “engaging in a host of illegalities, large and small” to retaliate against those who complained about the abuse. The suit was filed despite two meetings in the last two months between Spitzer’s assistants and town representatives, including town counsel Monte Rosenstein. Rosenstein, who has been town counsel for 28 years, said Thursday that Wallkill offered to sign a consent decree to fend off the lawsuit, but was told it would be futile. “This really is a tempest in a teapot,” Rosenstein said. “Over two months ago — we agreed to comply with everything the Attorney General requested in the way of implementing practices and procedures in the department — we’ve already done three-quarters of the things they wanted done.” Rosenstein said that 10 officers have already been disciplined by the town, and several have been suspended without pay. Police Chief James Coscette was suspended six months ago based on allegations raised by a Wallkill police officer. Some of those allegations are repeated in Thursday’s law suit. In January 2000, that officer won a jury verdict on his claim that the chief had retaliated against him for exercising his right to free speech in complaints he made about the department. A federal jury awarded the officer a total of $200,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. In filing the suit on behalf of the citizens of the town as well as New York, Spitzer invoked his authority under parens patriae, a common law concept of standing that allows the state to intervene to protect the health, safety and comfort of the people. During his campaign for Attorney General, Spitzer promised to be aggressive in using that authority to “stand in the shoes” of citizens who are the victims of violations of state and federal laws. But while he has used it on at least three occasions to sue municipalities or counties for an illegal pattern or practice, this is the first time he has invoked parens patriae in a case involving police misconduct. Rosenstein challenged Spitzer’s use of this authority in bringing the suit. He said the town planned to move quickly before U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon to have the action dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Rosenstein said there was no authority in state statutes for Spitzer to bring the suit; this authority is only to be invoked, he said, in cases where a “substantial portion of the populace” is affected. “This case involves less than a dozen incidents over a two-year period and they were minor incidents,” he said. “No one was assaulted and no one is accused of engaging in criminal conduct. This has never been done in New York State before.” Rosenstein also said that the Attorney General is required to seek the approval of Gov. George Pataki before filing such a suit — a claim disputed by both Spitzer and the governor’s office Thursday. The lawsuit charges that police officers would tell women they could have trumped up charges dropped if they agreed to a date. Sixteen-year-old girls complained of being fondled and harassed with sexually suggestive comments — with no disciplinary action taken against those officers. After the local newspaper, The Time Herald Record, published a series on the department’s problems that included criticism of the department by the town police commission, officers targeted the newspaper’s delivery trucks for a blizzard of traffic tickets, all of which were later dismissed by a local judge. The complaint also charges that the town’s police commission issued a report on the problems last summer, but that the report was virtually ignored by the Town Board. On Aug. 31, 2000, the commission recommended that the police department be disbanded.

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