NEW YORK -- New York City's police commissioner on Friday praised officers who were recorded bludgeoning two people with batons, saying the officers were defending themselves after being attacked by a man who had a history of getting into fights with police and then filing lawsuits over the altercations.
"You can't punch a cop. You can't fight a cop. You can't resist arrest. You have to respect the police," Commissioner James O'Neill said Friday on a radio program hosted by former "Saturday Night Live" star Joe Piscopo. "He's a serial resister. And when it's over, he sues the police department. And this is almost the way he makes his living."
O'Neill said the officers involved remain the subject of an internal investigation. But he slammed the Manhattan District Attorney's office over its handling of the case, saying prosecutors were wrong not to charge one of the men involved in the brawl and wrong to let the other one go without requesting bail.
In tweets and on the radio program, O'Neill said that lenient approach sends an "entirely wrong message" to New Yorkers.
"It's not just about the two cops now. It's about all New York City cops, keeping them safe and it's about quite frankly it's about all New Yorkers, keeping them safe and making sure their quality of life is where it should be," O'Neill said.
A spokesman for the district attorney's office defended its handling of the case, while a civil rights lawyer representing the two men involved in the fight called for a grand jury to investigate the police response.
O'Neill's defense followed several days of public debate over videos showing the street brawl.
The first one to become public, taken by a bystander, showed officers Bramlin Rosa and Jeffrey Mota striking two men with batons in the street, including a hit to the head, and then a group of officers striking and kicking one of the men while he was on the ground. Some blows landed after he had stopped moving.
Then another video came out showing what happened in the moments before: the men fighting with the officers, chasing one of them, and one of the men punching Mota in the head.
O'Neill said the officers initially confronted the two men, Sidney Williams, 37, and Aaron Grissom, 36, after complaints they were harassing people in a subway station.
After the fight, Grissom needed staples to close cuts to his head. Williams suffered a broken nose. Mota's head was bruised, and Rosa's tooth was chipped.
Court records show Williams and Grissom sued the city in 2017 alleging they were subject to excessive force in a 2016 arrest. A person with the same name as Williams is also listed in several other lawsuits against the police and city, though the Associated Press couldn't immediately confirm if it was the same man.
Williams once boasted about his lawsuits in a Facebook video, saying police "don't like me but they can't touch me" and that "every case I got, I beat."
A spokesman for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said prosecutors did not seek to have Grissom held on bail because they probably wouldn't be able to present his case to a grand jury fast enough to beat a legal deadline. Prosecutors said they didn't charge Williams because they did not have enough evidence of a crime.
"Our office is conducting a full, fair, and independent investigation into the alleged offenses for which Mr. Grissom and Mr. Williams were arrested," spokesman Danny Frost said. "We are separately conducting a full, fair, and independent investigation into the force used by officers during this encounter."
Sanford Rubenstein, the civil rights lawyer representing Grissom and Williams, said the officers used excessive force.
"Pictures are the truth, and they have once again surfaced to demonstrate police brutality," Rubenstein said. "The reported 16 blows of the baton, including one to the head, the kicking, the actions taken by police while he was already on the ground, must be criminally probed."
It's the second time recently that police and Manhattan prosecutors have sparred over charging men accused of attacking officers.
Prosecutors were criticized for waiting several days to bring charges against homeless men seen fighting with an officer on a subway platform on Dec. 23. Prosecutors blamed police for not immediately informing them of the incident.
The city's biggest police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said the district attorney's office "needs to wake up and realize that police officers cannot do our job when prosecutors won't do theirs."
"Every perp who has ever thought about taking a swing at a cop is watching the outcome in this case," union president Pat Lynch said in a statement. "They should have been sent a clear message: If you have any involvement whatsoever in assaulting a police officer, you will face charges and spend real time behind bars."
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