MANHATTAN — The man who is suing the city after being arrested in Greenwich Village last summer for giving cops the middle finger said the gesture was meant as “a private laugh with myself,” and not an attack on the NYPD.
Robert Bell, 26, a financial services recruiter, said that when he saw several police officers outside the Slaughtered Lamb Pub on Bleecker Street in August of 2011, he waited until their backs were turned to flip them the bird.
But another police officer who had been lagging behind the group witnessed Bell’s gesture and arrested him on the spot.
It was early in the evening, and Bell had a few drinks in him but was far from intoxicated, he told DNAinfo.com New York. When asked why he'd raised his middle finger to the passing officers, Bell said he did it “because I don’t like cops,” according to the lawsuit.
“I don’t know what laws they’ve made up in their head,” Bell said in a recent interview, asking not to be photographed head-on because he didn't want any additional exposure as a result of the lawsuit. “I don’t know who’s a good cop and who’s a bad cop.”
Bell said that sentiment lingers, as he has a particular distrust of NYPD officers. Still, the gesture was never meant to cause a disturbance, he added.
“I don’t really view that sort of thing as harmful,” Bell added. “I mean, it’s New York City.”
However, the police disagreed. They took Bell, who told cops his boyfriend was still inside the bar, to the Sixth Precinct stationhouse, where he claims he was taunted about his sexuality, according to the lawsuit.
“I was more than a little bit scared,” recalled Bell, who lives in Edison, N.J. “I knew I was within my rights, but that does not mean anything when the only people in charge of your custody are the police.”
The suit, which was filed this month, charges police with assault, false arrest and imprisonment and inflicting emotional distress. It also seeks unspecified damages for "pain, suffering, mental anguish and humiliation."
According to the suit, Bell was charged with disorderly conduct for making an “obscene gesture” and causing “public alarm and annoyance.”
But his attorney, Robert Quackenbush, said that at the time of the incident, only one or two people were outside the bar and that Bell’s gesture did not attract attention until he was arrested.
“I’ve never seen a single case in New York saying that a middle finger is an obscene gesture under the disorderly conduct statute,” said Quackenbush, who specializes in civil rights law.
“[The police are] expected to be able to absorb a certain amount of criticism,” he added. “The targets of this gesture didn’t see it. It was just about squashing dissent.”
The case against Bell was ultimately dismissed late last year when the officer who filed the police report failed to show up in court to testify.
Through the lawsuit, Bell, who plans to attend law school at some point in the future, said he hopes to clarify what actions are allowed under the law in New York City.
“It’s more about principle,” said Bell, who recalled the incident as “a very sobering experience.”
“It’s never a bad thing when people are aware of their rights within the law,” he said.
New York City Law Department attorney Ryan Shaffer said the city has received the lawsuit and is currently reviewing it.