Suffolk County has agreed to a settlement with a construction worker who alleged that he was permanently injured after police officers subjected him to “barbaric physical and psychological treatment” during a 2012 altercation in the parking lot of a Hauppauge union hall, according to his attorney and court records.
Steven McCune, 55, of Commack, had taken his federal civil rights lawsuit against the county to a jury trial that began Tuesday in Central Islip.
After the first Suffolk police officer began testimony, lawyers for the county initiated settlement discussions and an agreement in principle was reached Wednesday afternoon, said McCune’s attorney, Frederick K. Brewington.
“At least there is now some quantum of justice,” Brewington said in an interview Wednesday.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Suffolk County has agreed to a settlement with a construction worker who alleged that he was permanently injured after police officers subjected him to “barbaric physical and psychological treatment” during an encounter in 2012.
- Steven McCune, who was seeking up to $40 million in damages, claimed that Suffolk police officers beat him after he initially refused their commands to exit the car he had been sleeping in.
- United States Magistrate Judge Steven Tiscione gave the parties an August 31 deadline to update the court on the settlement, records show.
He called the settlement figure “substantial,” but declined to be specific.
A county spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday, saying “this litigation is still pending.”
United States Magistrate Judge Steven Tiscione gave the parties an Aug. 31 deadline to update the court on the settlement, records show. The Suffolk County Legislature must then approve the final dollar amount.
McCune, who was seeking up to $40 million in damages, claimed that Suffolk police officers beat him after he initially refused their commands to get out of the car he had been sleeping inside. Alleging excessive force and abuse of process, the heavy-crane operator said he was pummeled, taunted, stunned with a Taser in his groin and had his head grinded into the concrete by an officer’s boot after he was on the ground and handcuffed.
The officers had reported that McCune may have been under the influence of drugs and “violently” resisted arrest, necessitating what they said was a reasonable use of force.
The April 2012 encounter in the back lot of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 25 building was not recorded by security cameras and there were no known independent witnesses.
McCune said he suffered injuries including nerve damage, a torn rotator cuff, blood clots in an arm, black eyes, and a blood-caked ‘cauliflower’ ear. Most of the skin had been ripped off one side of his head. He was hospitalized for six days and says he was left with permanent hearing and vision loss.
Suffolk Police Internal Affairs investigators exonerated the involved officers without interviewing them, relying only on their one-page written statements, a Newsday examination of the case revealed. During depositions in the lawsuit taken in 2020 and 2021, the officers said they could not explain how McCune suffered such extensive injuries.
“The reality is, when we got to a deposition and asked them some of the hard questions,” Brewington said in an earlier Newsday interview, “it was the first time anybody had ever asked them any specifics about the beating of this man.”
The depth of the disciplinary probe matches several others highlighted in Newsday’s 2022 Inside Internal Affairs investigation, which revealed that Suffolk police often imposed little or no penalties in cases involving serious injuries or deaths. Newsday also reported last month that Long Island taxpayers have paid more than $165 million since 2000 to end lawsuits that alleged police and prosecutorial misconduct, including excessive force, false imprisonment and wrongful death.
“If I did this to somebody, this could be attempted. … I don’t know,” McCune said during an earlier interview with Newsday at Brewington’s Hempstead law offices. “I don’t know. I’d be in jail for a long time if I did this to somebody, and they can all do it and just walk away with a smile on their faces, like nothing’s gonna happen.”
After being charged with felony assault in the second degree, McCune — facing up to 14 years in prison — pleaded guilty in 2014 to misdemeanor resisting arrest and possession of a controlled substance, crack cocaine, which he maintains was only in the car in residue form, from a prior use.
He served 80 days in jail.
“I never even laid a finger on these officers,” McCune said in the Newsday interview before his case settling, surmising that they were unhappy he cursed at the first officer to approach his fogged-up car window, mistakenly believing it was someone else, and then refused his commands to get out.
The officers’ account
McCune earned his living operating cranes in New York City, swinging 10,000-pound steel beams up to 30 floors up on high-rise construction sites
On April 3, 2012, the then 43-year-old father said he got off early from a crane job in the Bronx and pulled into the union hall parking lot to take a nap. With his boots off, he said, he’d been asleep for a few hours when he was awakened around 6 p.m. by someone beeping a car horn.
He ignored it, but when the person returned five minutes later, he said, he told him to get lost. Twenty minutes later, McCune was awaked by someone else loudly banging on his car.
He said he thought it was the same person, coming back a third time, prompting a profane shout. But it was actually two Suffolk police officers, Christopher Zuccarello and John Kurklen, responding separately on complaints that McCune was parked in the lot, possibly under the influence of drugs. Kurklen was the only witness to take the stand at trial before the case was settled.
They both recalled in their lawsuit depositions that McCune was staring straight ahead with what appeared to be crack cocaine visible on his dashboard.
The officers said he ignored their verbal commands to get out of the car, instead yelling out “[expletive] you,” and spitting on Zuccarello through the window he had rolled down. When the officer opened the door, he said, McCune elbowed him in the face, began swinging his fists and then locked his hands on the steering wheel, resisting efforts to get him out that included trying to pry his hands off the wheel and cuffing one of his wrists.
After backup arrived, several officers pulled McCune from the car, wrestled him to the ground and, with the help of Tasers, which they discharged more than a dozen times, restrained his arms and legs. He was outfitted with a spit hood and taken to the hospital.
The officers' written reports describe McCune as kicking, spitting, flailing and contorting his body to avoid being handcuffed.
“The fight was bad and it had been going on for a few minutes,” Michael Rafferty, one of the responding officers, said in his 2021 deposition, according to a transcript. “He continued fighting, resisting, contorting his body. The struggle to get him contained in any way, shape or form was failing because he was that violent.”
In the Newsday interview, as well as in his deposition, McCune said he initially refused to get out of the car because one of the officers had taken an overly aggressive stance, holding the baton, and wouldn’t tell him what he had done. He said he was not using drugs that day.
After one of the officers threatened to Tase him, McCune said, he took his hands off the steering wheel and reached for his work boots. That’s when he was pulled from the car, thrown to the ground, cuffed and punched, kicked and stomped about the face, groin, neck, torso and head, he said.
“I started getting really scared. It just didn’t stop,” McCune said through tears. “No matter where it was, everybody was just taking shots. Eventually I got knocked out.”
He said he regained consciousness and was bleeding from the head when one of the officers pushed his face back to the ground with his boot and ground it down to the concrete.
“He was grinding my head into the gravel like he was putting out a cigarette,” McCune said.
Rafferty in his deposition denied grinding his boot into McCune’s head but said that he may have used the “right front of my right foot just to gently press down, not injurious, not resistive — just to stop him from spitting."
As the alleged beating and taunting continued, McCune claims he heard one of the officers say, “What are we going to do with him? We can’t take him like this. Call a [expletive] ambulance.”
When he tried to speak, McCune said he was punched in the ribs and again stunned with the Taser. After applying a spit hood, a breathable, mesh covering used to stop people from biting or spitting, one officer slammed his head back to the ground, the lawsuit complaint alleges.
On the way to the hospital, McCune claimed that blood was dripping into his eyes under the hood. He also alleges that an officer riding with him in the ambulance kneed him in the face after he asked for water.
First time answering questions
It wasn’t until early 2015, nearly three years after McCune’s arrest, that Suffolk police’s internal affairs bureau requested that the arresting officers fill out the forms with their account of what happened. Everyone involved was exonerated, according to the depositions. The full IAB report is under a confidentiality order in the lawsuit.
The depositions, however, brought out new details. Kurklen acknowledged that the lack of an actual interview with the internal affairs unit meant that he was never questioned about the incident. He also admitted not initially disclosing to the police department a hand fracture that Brewington suggested may have meant he punched McCune with excessive force.
“Did anybody ever ask you any of the questions like I asked you here about this incident?” Brewington asked Kurklen in 2021, according to the deposition transcript.
“No,” the officer replied.
In his 2020 deposition, Zuccarello was shown detailed color photographs of McCune's injuries that were taken at the hospital.
"Sir, any of the injuries I showed you, at the time that you last saw Mr. McCune, did he have those injuries?” Brewington asked.
“I do not recall, sir,” Zuccarello answered. “I don't know, no.”
Before his arrest, McCune said he earned most of his living operating cranes in the city, where the demanding, high-rise jobs paid up to $1,000 a day. But the hearing and vision loss he suffered have taken away those lucrative jobs, he said, leaving local work that pays only a small fraction — about $27 an hour.
McCune, shown the same photographs of his injuries that the officers saw, became emotional during the interview in Brewington's office.
"Now I understand what PTSD is,” McCune said. "Because every time I look at these pictures, I go back to that day.”