CASE N0.3

FALSE STOLEN VEHICLE ALARM AFTER PARKING LOT DISPUTE

Nassau police in 2019 issued a nationwide alarm for a stolen truck being driven by an armed, dangerous man. Three weeks later, police pulled over William Hasper at gunpoint. The truck wasn't stolen, and he wasn't armed.

On Feb. 15, 2019, the Nassau County Police Department issued an alarm for a stolen truck. Distributed nationwide, the alarm said police were looking for a black GMC Sierra pickup truck driven by an armed, dangerous man wanted for assault on a police officer.

Three weeks later, police pulled over the man at gunpoint and seized the truck.

The truck wasn’t stolen.

The man wasn’t armed.

He was not wanted.

He was retired Suffolk police lieutenant William F. Hasper.

My number one fear with this young officer with his gun, with these guns at my head, is that all it would have taken was for him to get nervous, to trip, and I would’ve taken a round or two center mass right in the middle of my cerebellum.

William Hasper

In a Newsday interview, he recalled facing a cop with a gun drawn, surrounded by at least four more officers with their guns drawn:

“My number one fear with this young officer with his gun, with these guns at my head, is that all it would have taken was for him to get nervous, to trip, and I would’ve taken a round or two center mass right in the middle of my cerebellum.”

About two months later, a state trooper pulled Hasper over again in the same truck on the same alarm. The trooper let Hasper go with a warning. Only after the second stop was the alarm canceled.

The story of how the Nassau police department made Hasper the subject of a false stolen vehicle alarm starts with a dispute between two men over a honked horn in a Westbury credit union parking lot — Hasper, who honked the horn, and Nassau Det. Sgt. William S. Russell, who took issue with Hasper’s honking.

A security camera at a 7-Eleven store recorded their actions. Its video captured events that led Nassau police to issue an alarm that sought a man whose address they knew, along with a pickup truck that was his and not stolen. But, taken from a distance, the recording provides only a limited ability to judge Russell’s report that Hasper’s truck struck him six times, Hasper’s denials in a federal lawsuit and the account of a security guard who witnessed the events.

Newsday examined Russell’s interaction with Hasper as one of four case histories documenting how civilian video recordings have come into play in evaluating police actions at a time when Nassau and Suffolk county police departments are among a small minority of large U.S. police forces that do not equip large numbers of officers with body cameras.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in early March called for equipping large numbers of officers with cameras after one of the few devices worn on the force captured officers kicking a handcuffed alleged car thief. Two officers were suspended; three were placed on modified duty. Bellone has since included body cameras in the county’s police reform plan.

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Cameras and consequences

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In a police reform plan approved by lawmakers Monday, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran endorsed widespread body camera use.

In three of Newsday’s case histories, security or cellphone video captured evidence that contradicted police accounts, prompted judges and prosecutors to dismiss arrests and supported lawsuits that saddled taxpayers with paying more than $4.6 million in compensation so far.

Criminal justice experts concluded after reviewing the three cases for Newsday that the presence of body-worn cameras may have prevented officers from lodging charges that proved baseless.

In this, the fourth case history, the single security camera was too far away to offer a precise view of the interactions between Hasper and Russell. Located across a side street, the 7-Eleven camera captured a wide view in which Hasper and Russell are small figures.

A video’s shortcomings

Even after Newsday enlarged the section of the video in which they appear, the quality of the imagery ruled out definitively determining, for example, whether Russell displayed his police shield or whether Hasper became agitated while in his truck. Hasper, for one, says that a body camera’s close-up view and sound recording would have documented whether his version or Russell’s version of who did and said what is more accurate.

Hasper is a West Point graduate and former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger who served as a tactical control officer launching Patriot missiles during the first Gulf War. He joined the Suffolk County Police Department in 1993 and retired in 2012 after a disabling on-duty motor vehicle accident.

This experience has convinced me that all police officers – all, each, every, inclusive – should have a body camera.

William Hasper

Photo credit: Chris Ware

He said his arrest and eventual misdemeanor conviction have converted him from opposing body cameras to supporting them.

“I never was a big fan because I, myself, and everybody I ever worked with were decent, hardworking, honest cops,” he said, adding: “This experience has convinced me that all police officers — all, each, every, inclusive — should have a body camera. Because if this police officer had had a body camera … this incident would have went nowhere.”

On the day of the incident, security guard Cameron Grady signed a handwritten statement prepared for him by Det. Ryan Lunt that purported to be Grady’s first-person description of what he witnessed while in the credit union parking lot. The statement quoted Grady as saying he saw Hasper use his truck to “intentionally bump” into Russell “multiple times until he pushed him out of the way.”

Grady later disavowed the statement in a letter to the judge who oversaw Hasper’s trial. He wrote that Hasper never struck Russell, and later testified that he signed the statement because he had trusted the detective to write the truth.

In his lawsuit, Hasper alleges malicious prosecution, falsification of evidence, unlawful search and seizure and false imprisonment. The county contends that police had probable cause to arrest him and that a judge convicted Hasper of one misdemeanor count while acquitting him of felony assault.

Nassau police spokesman Lt. Det. Richard LeBrun failed to respond to Newsday questions about Hasper’s case submitted by telephone and email. Those sought the department’s official record of the facts, including the identity of the officer who issued the alarm.

Newsday last summer requested access to Russell’s disciplinary records, along with the records of others involved in unrelated cases, under the state Freedom of Information Law. Despite the June 2020 repeal of 50-a, the New York State law that shielded police officer discipline, the Nassau police department turned over heavily blacked-out documents.

In Russell’s case, it provided papers that showed only his name, serial number, hire date and current assignment.

After Commissioner Patrick Ryder denied an appeal for fuller disclosure, Newsday filed suit alleging that the department had invoked “new and baseless reasons to refuse disclosure of virtually all substantive information regarding the investigation and discipline of Nassau County police officers.”

The court papers stated: “Newsday wants to inform and educate the public about the processes and standards of police discipline so that the public can judge whether law enforcement agencies operate in the best interest of police officers and the general public.”

The police department has not yet filed a response in the court action.

Clash in a parking lot

The encounter between Hasper and Russell, who did not return calls seeking an interview, lasted for eight minutes.

It started after Russell pulled halfway into the crowded parking lot of the Bethpage Federal Credit Union on Old Country Road. He was on duty in plain clothes and driving an unmarked car.

While Russell waited for a space, Hasper tried to pull in behind him. Hasper’s pickup blocked a lane of traffic. After about a minute, he honked his horn several times, according to the men’s accounts in police and court records.

Photo credit: Chris Ware

Russell found a parking spot and then stood beside Hasper’s truck for about 16 seconds before Hasper pulled into a parking place. Russell alleged that Hasper “was screaming and waving his hands at me,” hurling expletives and “acting totally irrational.” Russell also stated that he identified himself as an on-duty Nassau sergeant and “called the third precinct to send an available car to assist me with an investigation at this time.”

In Hasper’s telling, Russell used profanity, was visibly enraged and never displayed his police shield. Hasper also recounted keeping his hands on the steering wheel and shift column and calmly asking why Russell hadn’t moved to let him enter the lot. He described Russell as “screaming and spitting,” and quoted Russell as shouting, “Hey, guy, the way it works around here is you [expletive] wait, you [expletive] wait, and when it’s clear, then you [expletive] pull in! Got it?”

Emerging from the truck, Hasper walked toward the credit union, angling away from Russell, the video shows. He asserted that Russell shouted at him, “Hey, tough guy, don’t think you’re just walking away from this. You’ll see who the [expletive] [expletive] is.”

While Hasper was in the credit union, Russell paced outside, talked on his phone and looked onto the road. Hasper emerged from the building, walked past Russell and got into his truck. Russell walked behind the truck. The video captured Hasper backing up, braking, getting out of the truck, walking toward Russell and returning to the truck.

Describing the events, Russell wrote in a police statement that he again showed Hasper his sergeant’s shield and that Hasper screamed into Russell’s cellphone while Russell again called for a patrol car. He also recounted ordering Hasper not to leave, telling Hasper that he was standing behind the truck and said he got hit by the truck when Hasper backed up.

Asserting that he had no idea Russell was a police officer, Hasper said he asked security guard Grady to “watch my back” because he was concerned that Russell was calling friends for a possible physical altercation. He also recounted backing out slowly and stopping because Russell was behind his truck. The truck didn’t make contact with Russell, he stated.

Photo credit: Courtesy Anthony Grandinette

In Grady’s telling, Hasper “never struck” Russell.

“The guy in the suit [Russell] was the one acting all crazy,” he wrote in his letter to the judge. “Hasper was a gentleman and was calm the whole time.”

Hasper backed out of the parking spot. According to Russell, he “backed up, hitting me two more times, knocking me backwards.” The video shows Russell walking from behind the truck and putting his hands on the hood. He stated that he was holding up his sergeant’s shield. Grady rushed toward them. He wrote that Russell held his cellphone, not his badge, and “did not identify himself to Hasper and me as a police officer.”

Hasper pulled forward again. Russell walked backwards in front of the moving truck with his hands still on the hood. He asserted that the truck struck him three times “while backing me up,” causing “pain to my right knee and substantial pain [to] right foot.” Russell stepped to the side of the moving truck. Hasper made a right turn onto Old County Road. Russell ran to his car and pulled out in unsuccessful pursuit.

Grady wrote, “When [Russell] jumped in front of the truck Hasper was careful as he was trying to leave [the] parking lot. Nobody knew this guy was a police officer. He seemed to me to be an aggressive guy looking for [a] fight.”

Stolen vehicle alarm

Detectives identified Hasper from the truck’s license plate. They went to Hasper’s home, found he was not there and spoke with him by telephone. Hasper reported that Russell had never identified himself as a cop and that, as a former cop, he had tried to de-escalate the confrontation, according to his lawsuit.

Around 7:25 p.m., a detective informed Hasper that police intended to arrest him that night, the lawsuit states.

At 7:36 p.m., Nassau police issued the alarm.

Indicating that Nassau police were searching for a stolen truck, the alarm listed the “date of theft” as Feb. 15, 2019. The alert also stated: “Vehicle used in the commission of a crime; occupant(s) armed and/or dangerous; preserve for prints.” It described the occupant as a “retired MOS [member of service]” who was “wanted for assault on po [police officer].”

At Newsday’s request, John Jay College Criminal Justice professor of police practice Joseph Pollini reviewed the Nassau police department’s actions. Before retiring, Pollini was a 33-year veteran of the New York Police Department who commanded a major case squad, robbery squad and a cold case homicide squad.

Based on the portion of the alert that told cops they were searching for a stolen truck, Pollini concluded that the bulletin contained false information.

How could you steal your own truck? … To indicate that he’s armed and dangerous is totally ridiculous and absurd.

Joseph PolliniJohn Jay College Criminal Justice professor of police practice

Photo credit: Joseph Pollini

“How could you steal your own truck?” he asked. “To indicate that he’s armed and dangerous is totally ridiculous and absurd.”

About three hours after the department issued the alarm, two detectives and a uniformed officer went to Hasper’s home. Hasper’s partner, Lia Todoran, contacted him. He spoke with the detectives by telephone and connected them with a lawyer who put the detectives on notice that they would need a warrant to enter his home. The following day, attorney William Petrillo arranged Hasper’s surrender.

Held in jail overnight, Hasper was charged with traffic violations, leaving the scene of an accident and second-degree assault for allegedly striking Russell with the truck. A judge released Hasper on $5,000 bail.

A detective asked Petrillo’s law partner, Edward Sapone, to turn over Hasper’s truck. Sapone told the detective to get a warrant, the lawsuit says. Police never sought a warrant, according to Brendan Brosh, a spokesman for the Nassau District Attorney’s Office. Such a warrant would have enabled police to comb the truck for evidence.

Although Hasper had gone through arrest and arraignment, was represented by a lawyer and had given up his registered guns, Nassau police allowed the stolen truck alarm to remain in force.

Fred Klein, a Hofstra law professor and former chief of the Nassau DA’s Major Offense Bureau, said police should have vacated the alarm.

“Once he surrenders himself, they know it’s not stolen,” he said. “They can’t keep an alarm out like that.”

Detained at gunpoint

Three weeks after the alarm was issued, Suffolk police spotted Hasper’s truck as he was driving in Deer Park and pulled him over at gunpoint.

“The next thing I know, I look to my left, and I see a young police officer about 10 feet away with his gun out pointed right to my head, and I couldn’t believe it,” Hasper recalled.

Police ordered Hasper to the ground and placed him in handcuffs, the lawsuit says. One police officer shouted, “Who reported this vehicle stolen?” the lawsuit says.

Suffolk police confirmed that the truck was not stolen. Still, Nassau cops told them to detain Hasper, according to the lawsuit.

“While I’m in the back of the police car, I’m thinking to myself, ‘If this could happen to me, it could happen to anybody,'” he said.

A Nassau police officer arrived on the scene and drove away the truck.

Klein said Nassau police should have gotten a warrant if they wanted the truck. “You can’t use an alarm as a substitute for a warrant,” he said.

Ten days later, a Nassau County assistant district attorney released the truck to Hasper. Even so, police kept the alarm in effect. The state trooper pulled him over the second time, in May 2019, as Hasper was driving a friend and a friend’s wife home from chemotherapy for 9/11-related cancer.

“This is one of the most traumatic, enduring things I’ve ever had to face,” Hasper said. “I would put these experiences on par with the stress that you feel, that I particularly felt from being in combat.”

After the second stop, Nassau police canceled the alarm, records show.

Brosh said the DA’s office did not open an investigation of the alarm because it had not received a complaint.

Hasper’s lawyer, Sapone, wrote in an email: “As soon as I learned of the incident, I immediately made a complaint to the assigned assistant district attorney on the case, who assured me they would look into it.”

He did not respond when asked if he filed a complaint with the Nassau Internal Affairs Unit.

Christopher Mango, the then-assistant district attorney handling the case, declined to comment.

After Hasper’s arrest, the district attorney’s office expanded the counts leveled against him to include third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, and second-degree reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor charging that he had recklessly placed Russell in danger of suffering serious physical injury.

At a nonjury trial in 2020, Nassau Supreme Court Justice Christopher Quinn acquitted Hasper of both assault charges, including the one cited in the alarm. Quinn found Hasper guilty of the traffic violations and reckless endangerment. Hasper is appealing the verdict.

Hasper said the criminal trial cost him about $200,000 in legal fees, a price tag he knows few people can afford.

“If you are marginalized, if you are on the fringes of society, if you are a Black man, if you are a Latino man, and you don’t have the means to defend yourself, you just have to go in and take the plea,” he said. “No one’s going to listen to you anyway.”

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