The police commander whose blast of pepper spray galvanized the Occupy Wall Street movement says he has been “tortured” since the incident — but still believes he used the proper amount of force and "would do things the same way" if given a second chance, sources said.
“On the Inside” sources who spoke to Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna say he was stunned by the virulent reaction to video that portrayed him squirting pepper spray into the faces of four female protesters during a march near Union Square on Sept. 24.
“I did not intend to spray the women,” the 30-year veteran told my sources, adding that he “acted with the best intentions” when he decided to use the chemical, which is considered the least aggressive crowd control tool at police officers' disposal.
Although his life has been turned upside down, the veteran police official believes he "would do things the same way" if he could turn back the clock.
The embattled commander insists he was aiming at several male protesters who were not seen on a now-famous video that showed Bologna spraying the women. His targets were lying on the ground trying to pull the legs out from under several cops who were holding NYPD orange crowd-control rubber mesh nets in front of them. The spray fanned out and hit the women.
Bologna told my sources he was “shell-shocked” when the video went viral and angry protesters began to make death threats against him and his family, whose names and home address were posted on the web.
The sources, who are also familiar with Bologna's Internal Affairs interrogation, revealed exclusive details about Bologna’s story and the events surrounding that fateful day, including Bologna's fears on whether the NYPD “was going to back me.”
The NYPD ultimately ruled that Bologna violated police guidelines during the incident, and notified him Oct. 18 that he would be fined two weeks pay, or about $6,000. He still faces an inquiry by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
Bologna told his side of the story to NYPD Internal Affairs 10 days ago during a two-hour grilling, sources said.
The Occupy Wall Street movement was only a few days old when Bologna — a former commander of the 1st Precinct and veteran of patrolling numerous protests — was the commanding officer in charge all of Manhattan below 59th Street, tasked with covering protests at Zuccotti Park.
The department assigned roughly 60 cops to the encampment that day, including one captain, two lieutenants, six sergeants, and 48 uniformed officers.
Without warning, a large group of protesters marched out of the park and headed up to Union Square, sources said. The demonstrators belonged mostly to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but they also joined up with hundreds of protesters calling for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death for killing a Philadelphia cop, as well as others protesting against the acquittal of two cops accused of raping an East Village woman in her apartment earlier this year.
Bologna decided to leave half of his troops at Zuccotti Park and take the remaining 30 cops with him to follow the march. The NYPD was stretched thin that day, with cops diverted to the United Nations Assembly along with the usual litany of street fairs and local events around town.
Concerned about his manpower, Bologna called for reinforcements, fearing he might be undermanned at Union Square, sources said.
By the time more officers mobilized and others were summoned into Manhattan from the outer boroughs, the marchers had filled 14th Street. Minor clashes erupted between cops and protesters refusing to stay out of the street.
Bologna’s cops then tried to clear the street to allow traffic to pass, but the demonstrators pushed back. At one point, Bologna was forced to grab a woman, and they tussled as he tried to arrest her.
Then some splinter groups of angry demonstrators, including some aggressive protesters, peeled off onto University Place, the sources said. Bologna and some cops followed and at 12th Street tried to corral them with orange rubber mesh fencing.
That’s when the infamous pepper spray incident took place.
Bologna says he saw three young men on the ground trying to grab officers' legs from under the netting in an attempt to upend them. He marched over, took out his can of pepper spray and unleashed a blast. But he missed his mark and instead sprayed the four women, who recoiled in pain from the noxious liquid, sources said. Some of the pepper spray actually blew back into Bologna’s face, too.
His three intended targets, meanwhile, jumped up and fled east on 12th Street, he said.
Within a couple of days, the video surfaced, and it went viral on the web, provoking a swift and vicious reaction.
Under great strain, the family soldiered on as best they could. They were given protection. And Bologna continued to go to work, responding to shootings and other crimes around Manhattan for nearly the next two weeks.
Then a second video surfaced of him using pepper spray against a different group of protesters on Sept. 24. The NYPD decided to shift him to desk duty inside the Manhattan South Borough Command while they investigated that incident.
From the start, Bologna was concerned whether “the job would back me,” sources said. But while he was sanctioned, Bologna remains an NYPD commander — albeit one who says he wants to be “back on the streets.”
Right now that is a hard sell.
Perhaps if the furor surrounding his actions dies down, he could get another chance. Cops involved in far more serious situations have eventually returned to their posts.
Bologna may have done more for the protesters then any message they were trying to send — sparking a worldwide wave of public support for Occupy Wall Street and raising questions about NYPD tactics.
Bologna may have made a mistake in judgment and deserved a rip. But it is hard to see a crime here.
And yet, Bologna woke up Wednesday and went to work still trying to digest how a 30-year career turned on a squirt of pepper spray that missed its mark in a crowd.