BY YOAV GONEN, THE CITY
Police body-camera footage shows a 29-year-old security guard who died after being Tased by police at his Queens home last month was unarmed when cops fired the electric currents at him, his cousin and a family lawyer told THE CITY.
The duo said the video they saw contradicts the NYPD’s public narrative about the events leading up to George Zapantis’ death on June 21.
Police officials had contended cops shocked Zapantis, who had a history of mental illness, only after he approached them with a Samurai sword.
“That’s a lie,” George Vomvolakis, the family’s lawyer, said of the NYPD’s account. “It was more than clear that he was unarmed.”
Vomvolakis said NYPD officials allowed him and George Zapantis’ cousin, Marina Zapantis, to view body camera footage from more than a dozen officers who responded to a 911 call that police said mentioned a man with a gun at the Whitestone home.
He said the video, which he and Marina Zapantis viewed on Friday under NYPD supervision over a six-hour period in his Manhattan office, showed that officers Tased George Zapantis at least five times after the confrontation turned physical.
This included two times when Zapantis was face down on the ground, according to Vomvolakis.
“They’re all on top of him, they start tasing him again. He’s screaming and screaming,” Vomvolakis said the footage shows. “It’s about a minute or two, and then he just goes silent and limp.”
Few official answers
NYPD officials said on Tuesday the incident is still under review by the Force Investigation Division, which handles the most serious cases of use of force by police personnel.
They didn’t respond to questions about their prior statements to the media that said George Zapantis had been tased after approaching the police “with sword in hand.”
Julia Arredondo, a City Hall spokesperson, said an initial 48-hour review of the incident by NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea resulted in no immediate disciplinary action against any of the officers involved.
As part of reforms he said would bolster police accountability, Mayor Bill de Blasio last month announced a two-week limit on completing investigations of incidents where civilians suffer substantial injuries during police encounters.
Arredondo said the NYPD’s probe — now in its fifth week — is being held back so as not to interfere with a criminal probe being conducted by the office of state Attorney General Letitia James.
Officials in James’ office, which investigates when civilians believed to be unarmed die at the hands of police, said the criminal probe doesn’t prevent the NYPD from conducting an internal investigation or from disciplining officers.
The Father’s Day incident began with an argument over a floodlight in a backyard shared by George Zapantis and his upstairs neighbors, who generally got along with him. A passerby heard the commotion and called 911, neighbors and Vomvolakis said.
At one point during the argument, George Zapantis appeared at his front door holding a sword, sheathed in a black case, neighbors Ricky and Shaniqua Noble said.
But they added that they never felt threatened by George Zapantis, whom they described as a gentle giant. They said they both told cops about his mental health challenges as soon as police responded, and advised waiting for his mother, Athanasia, to return home from her job as a home health aid.
Vomvolakis said when police arrived, George Zapantis was inside his home with the front door closed, its glass panes covered by a curtain, and an outer screen door also shuttered.
Both he and Marina Zapantis said George Zapantis was talking to police through the closed doors, and at one point he drew back the curtain to reveal himself wearing a gladiator-like getup from his mother’s native Greece — including a Spartan helmet and leather-like armbands — and holding the sword.
They both said that, with the main door and screen door closed, the officers responded with apparent surprise, rather than fear.
“Those preliminary glances of him, they were like, ‘Oh shit, did you see what he’s wearing?’” said Marina Zapantis, who is an attorney. “I don’t think those were comments that would be made if they were in fear for their life.”
George Zapantis then closed the curtain, according to Vomvolakis.
Minutes later, he opened the front door without any of the gladiator gear on except the armbands, according to the lawyer. Vomvolakis and Marina Zapantis said George Zapantis spun around to confirm to responding officers that he had ditched the sword.
“They made him turn around and they saw that he was, in fact, unarmed,” said Marina Zapantis.
After a brief discussion with police about the floodlight argument, and about his job as a security guard, George Zapantis suddenly got agitated after officers said they weren’t there to hurt him, Vomvolakis said.
He shouted a threat and came after them with his fists — punching out the plastic partition of the shuttered screen door with officers bracing the door from the other side, Vomvolakis said the videos show.
Once George Zapantis broke through the plastic, a number of officers grabbed him, according to Vomvolakis — starting a tussle that led to the multiple rounds of tasing.
“They were just too quick to use the Taser,” Vomvolakis said. “There was no reason to use the Taser.”
Previously released video shot by the Nobles’ daughter from upstairs that evening shows at least five police officers trying to get George Zapantis down on the ground with his hands behind his back.
Officers threatened to tase him “again” if he didn’t comply, and then one of them did, the phone video shows.
While the phone video ends with George Zapantis standing upright with his arms behind his back, the body camera footage shows that he tumbled to the ground soon afterward, along with multiple officers, Vomvolakis said.
He said the video was taken from too close to see what caused the fall.
“He’s screaming for help,” Vomvolakis said the footage shows. “His screams start to change though. It starts to sound really high pitched, but muffled. It sounds like he really can’t breathe.
“Then all of a sudden he just stops.”
Police said George Zapantis suffered a “medical condition/cardiac arrest” and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said the cause of death is still pending.
Among the other police accountability reforms announced last month, de Blasio said the NYPD would publicly release body camera footage within 30 days from incidents where officers fire their guns or Tasers.
Tuesday marked the 30th day since Zapantis died outside his 150th Street home, but police officials said they weren’t yet ready to release the footage.
“Our goal is to publicly disclose the body-worn camera footage as soon as possible and consistent with our policy for doing this important work, which in this case consists of reviewing hours of footage from multiple cameras,” said Al Baker, an NYPD spokesperson.
Marina Zapantis said watching the hours of footage was “terrifying” for her, but that she did it in order to be able to tell his mother what had occurred.
She said the mom is still in disbelief about what happened.
Marina Zapantis said the video made clear to her how simple it would have been for police to simply leave George Zapantis alone inside his home.
“It was hard to hear his voice. It was hard to hear him in his last words … It was hard to see how the entire situation was handled,” Marina Zapantis said of the footage.
“This whole thing could have been avoided,” she added. “It’s completely senseless.”
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