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Judge briefly closes courtroom in ex-tennis star case

Last Updated Sep 20, 2017 at 1:00 pm PDT

NEW YORK, N.Y. – The administrative judge hearing a misconduct case against a police officer who wrongly arrested tennis star James Blake briefly closed the courtroom to the public Wednesday to discuss the disciplinary record of a witness.

The secrecy is the result of a New York state law protecting the privacy of officers, and a recent city decision to adhere to the confidentiality rules more closely, a move that puts the nation’s largest police force at odds with an effort to be more transparent.

The attorney for the police watchdog group prosecuting the case against Officer James Frascatore asked Daniel Modell, a defence witness and former police lieutenant who was testifying that he believed Frascatore acted appropriately during the arrest, about whether he’d been disciplined during an NYPD ticket-fixing scandal.

Judge Rosemarie Maldonado closed the proceeding for about 10 minutes to hear testimony.

The executive director for the watchdog agency disagreed with the decision.

“The open nature of the trial room is vital to the disciplinary process. The burden that must be met before closing a courtroom is high, and was not met in this case,” said Jonathan Darche, of the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Frascatore is being brought up on departmental charges of using inappropriate force on someone who never resisted or tried to flee.

Blake testified a day earlier that Frascatore wore a T-shirt and jeans and didn’t identify himself before throwing the former tennis pro to the ground and handcuffing him. The mistaken arrest took place in 2015 outside a Manhattan hotel.

The case became another flashpoint in the national debate over police use of force against unarmed black men. The 37-year-old Blake, once the No. 4 tennis player in the world, is the child of a black father and white mother; Frascatore is white.

The outcome of the trial, if the punishment falls short of firing, won’t be made public because of the same privacy law. Police department officials have said that law should be changed to afford greater transparency — but it must be done by state lawmakers.

In Frascatore’s testimony on Tuesday, he said that a superior misidentified Blake as a target of a credit card fraud operation. He said he had been warned that the suspect could be armed with knives.

Frascatore, 40, rejected a deal earlier this year asking him to forfeit vacation. The judge will recommend a potentially more severe punishment, including dismissal, to the police commissioner, who has the final say.

The arrest was captured on a security video.

The officer said he did nothing wrong. Blake has said the officer should be fired.

Closing arguments in the case were expected Tuesday.

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This story has been corrected to show that the disciplinary record being discussed was that of a former officer testifying for the defence, and not Frascatore.