The New York Police Department is facing criticism over its social-distancing enforcement after bystanders captured video showing aggressive or violent arrests in at least three separate incidents over the weekend.
On Sunday night, three cops were recorded handcuffing a young man against a Brooklyn sidewalk while residents watched from on a stoop. One officer struck the man’s head while the other cops pressed the suspect to the ground. “Back up!” the officer, wielding an expandable baton, yelled to a witness.
“That’s not necessary. He’s not a threat to you,” another onlooker says in the footage, which was circulated by Congressman Hakeem Jeffries on Tuesday, as well as a host of community activists. (While Jeffries suggested the video was taken Monday night, an NYPD spokeswoman told The Daily Beast the incident occurred Sunday.)
“Police officers aggressively ‘enforcing’ social distancing in our community,” Jeffries fumed in a Twitter post. “This occurred in East New York last evening. Why are sunbathers who violate social distancing guidelines treated one way and young men in certain communities another?” Jeffries seemed to be referencing photos taken this weekend at city parks, including Brooklyn’s Domino Park, which was packed with mostly white sunbathers. Some of those park-goers didn’t wear masks or appear to be social distancing yet presumably were not subjected to violent arrests.
According to police spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell, the officers were responding to a group sitting on the stoop of a building in East New York at 10:10 p.m. The group was not social distancing, she said.
O’Donnell said the suspect, Stephon Scott, walked away from the gathering and attempted to enter a police car. As a result, the sergeant attempted to stop Scott and walked him back to the curb. Scott struck the sergeant’s arm, and the officer arrested him, O’Donnell said.
Scott was charged with obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. “Use of force in a police encounter of this kind is not synonymous with abuse of authority,” O’Donnell said in an email.
Still, multiple videos posted on social media recently show police forcefully breaking up crowds in neighborhoods that have larger populations of people of color. Footage from some of those arrests were recorded in places like Brower Park in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and outside the Melrose Houses in the Bronx.
On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea fielded questions about NYPD’s enforcement of quarantine measures and about the arrest, which occurred in the 75th Precinct.
“I think every one of these cases has to be seen individually,” de Blasio said in a video briefing. “I would caution against anyone trying to look at different videos or different situations and see them all the same. They’re not all the same.”
“We look at every incident carefully,” De Blasio added, before referring to the arrest of 33-year-old Donni Wright, who was punched by a maskless, plainclothes officer in Manhattan’s East Village on Saturday. “When I see something I think is inappropriate, I’m going to say it.” The cop, Francisco Garcia, was placed on modified duty.
“But I also want to remind people that what New Yorkers need to do is respect the NYPD as well and respect instructions and certainly never, ever fight with an NYPD officer. That is not acceptable,” de Blasio added.
“It’s a two-way street. Respect goes both ways, and that’s how we create a better city for everyone. And when an officer says follow these rules around social distancing or wearing a face covering, that is for the protection and health of everyone.”
Shea said videos have surfaced in the past few days but the “common denominator” is a lack of compliance with orders. “A punch should not be assumed to be excessive force; it should be examined in the totality of the circumstances,” he said.
While Shea did not name Scott, the commissioner said the man in the East New York video had been arrested for a burglary a month ago. (O’Donnell said the Brooklyn District Attorney declined to prosecute Scott then, citing “public health” as the rationale.)
Video of Scott’s arrest was just the latest to make headlines.
Police tried to break up a crowd in the same neighborhood on Saturday night. The New York Post, which published footage of the fracas, reported that cops “gave multiple commands for the group to disperse” but people refused.
In the clip, a trio of officers tries to handcuff 32-year-old Albert Jones. Another member of the group, Antonio Rivera, 28, then rushes behind the police before getting shoved to the pavement by a cop. “He’s unconscious!” a bystander yells of Rivera.
A third man, 31-year-old Gary Best, also allegedly refused orders to disperse. The men now face charges including obstructing governmental administration, the Post reported. Rivera was charged with marijuana possession and resisting arrest, while Jones also was charged with harassment.
Meanwhile, a brutal police encounter over COVID-19 measures went viral on Saturday, leading to officer Francisco Garcia being stripped of his gun and placed on desk duty pending an internal investigation.
Garcia, who was in plainclothes, attacked 33-year-old Donni Wright in the East Village on Saturday around 5:30 p.m. In the footage, Garcia and other officers had just arrested a couple for a violation of social distancing measures. Garcia then broke from the crowd—which had gathered across from a public housing complex—and began walking toward Wright with his Taser drawn.
The weapon can be heard clicking in the footage, and Garcia shouts for people to “Move the fuck back right now!”
Garcia continues, “Why you flexing for? Don’t flex.” The officer strikes Wright in the head and shoulder and drags him across the sidewalk.
O’Donnell, the NYPD spokeswoman, said Wright “took a fighting stance against the officer” when ordered to disperse. While Wright was cuffed for resisting arrest and assault on a police officer, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is deferring the charges pending further investigation, the AP reported.
Wright’s mother told the Post that he’s worked as a grounds caretaker for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for 10 years and suffered “physical damage” from Garcia. “We’re talking about someone sitting on your shoulder and punching your ribs and hitting on your shoulders and your head,” Donna Wright said.
Jennvine Wong, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project, said activists have been sounding the alarm on social-distancing enforcement since the coronavirus pandemic hit the city.
“We cannot police our way out of this pandemic,” Wong told The Daily Beast. “It exacerbates the stark inequalities in our society.”
Wong said the collection of cellphone videos from communities of color are at odds with images from the NYPD’s own PR machine—which includes Twitter photos of officers doling out masks to people congregating in whiter, wealthier areas like Manhattan’s Central Park and Domino Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“They’re handing out masks to people there,” Wong said. “How great would it be if they did that in neighborhoods without as many resources.”
Across city neighborhoods including Bed-Stuy, East New York, and Harlem, police are rolling up to teenagers and “hopping out on the pretext of, ‘You don’t have a mask on, you’re not social distancing,’ and escalating the situation to a stop and frisk, and arrest for marijuana,” Wong added.
“This is a public health crisis. We should be talking about how to effectively use resources so that we can ensure everyone can stay home and socially distance,” Wong told The Daily Beast. “We’re not doing that. We’re sending police in as the solution.
“It’s an approach that uses a hammer when a scalpel is needed.”
Wong said she’s witnessed incidents—in her own Brooklyn neighborhood and in social-media videos—of officers apprehending groups of teenagers but not wearing protective equipment themselves.
“It foments distrust between the community and the police,” she said. “How are community members supposed to feel about the mandate to wear a mask when they are being approached by NYPD officers who are flouting the rule themselves.”
A nonprofit called Nurses for Social Justice penned a letter to de Blasio and Shea last month urging law enforcement to curtail non-essential activities including “enforcement of certain misdemeanor laws” during the pandemic. The letter was signed by 200 doctors, nurses and other medical workers on the COVID-19 frontlines.
“We are especially concerned to hear that the NYPD is taking a business-as-usual approach to policing low-level offenses at this time. For each interaction the NYPD has with the public, there is a risk of virus transmission, and we urge the NYPD to take this public health risk seriously,” the group wrote.
The medical professionals asked the NYPD to “encourage social distancing through public service announcements, not enforcement that leads to unnecessary contacts and risks further transmission of the coronavirus.”
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the city’s police union, issued a statement on Monday saying it, too, wanted cops out of the social-distancing business.
“The cowards who run this city have given us nothing but vague guidelines and mixed messages, leaving the cops on the street corners to fend for ourselves,” PBA President Pat Lynch said. “Nobody has a right to interfere with a police action. But now that the inevitable backlash has arrived, they are once again throwing us under the bus.”
“As the weather heats up and the pandemic continues to unravel our social fabric, police officers should be allowed to focus on our core public safety mission,” Lynch added. “If we don’t, the city will fall apart before our eyes.”
Hawk Newsome, the president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, also claims to have been wrongfully arrested in the Bronx over the weekend.
On Sunday, Newsome and his sister, Chivona Newsome, a Democratic Congressional candidate in the South Bronx, shared a video of cops ordering residents to disperse and of Newsome being hauled away by cops.
“Why are you so close to me? I feel threatened!” Newsome yells to the group of officers. “Every time I take a step, you walk up.”
“I’m doing my job. Let’s go,” replies the officer, who appears to be the deputy inspector of Police Service Area 7, which serves NYCHA developments in the Bronx’s 40th and 44th Precincts.
“This is our community. They are outsiders!” Newsome shouts.
Moments later, Newsome declares, “The First Amendment says that I can talk,” while he’s placed in handcuffs.
Chivona Newsome told The Daily Beast that several officers, including the deputy inspector, weren’t wearing personal protective equipment during the interaction.
In a tweet on Sunday, she wrote, “While white folks are being given refreshments in the park by police during COVID-19, black people are being harassed and brutalized in their communities. This is blatantly racist behavior and we demand a swift response from” Mayor de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
O’Donnell told The Daily Beast that before Newsome arrived on scene, 44th Precinct officers were responding to the violent robbery of a couple. The area has experienced a high volume of violence in the past month, she said.
One of the robbery victims told police that she spotted the two men that robbed her and her boyfriend at an outdoor memorial. Cops called for backup and the robbery suspects were arrested, O’Donnell said. But as officers ordered the mourners to disperse, she added, Hawk Newsome arrived and started shouting.
Shatiallah Adell, 27, was at the memorial, which included a candle lighting for her aunt, who passed away from COVID-19. She said that officers told them to keep six feet apart but there weren’t any problems until an undercover police car arrived later. Officers got out and grabbed her 15-year-old cousin, tossing him in the back of the car and refusing to tell the mourners why he was being arrested.
When the boy’s parents rushed toward the unmarked vehicle, Adell says, one officer pepper-sprayed them and several members of the crowd. “He did not give a warning,” Adell said of the officer. “We were all just aiding each other and pouring milk on our eyes. They were rushing us to move when we were pepper sprayed.”
The Daily Beast reached out to NYPD for comment on the alleged pepper spray usage but did not hear back by press time.
“I‘m actually very scared of police. That’s all I’m thinking about,” Adell told The Daily Beast. “I wish officers knew how they made us feel.” Adell said Hawk Newsome arrived after the boy was arrested and tried to help the mourners.
In footage posted on social media following the encounter, one woman tells the line of officers, “We just got Maced. We’re trying to get it out of our eyes. We can’t go home because we can’t see."
Newsome told The Daily Beast he and his sister had been delivering food and doing wellness checks in the Bronx as part of their Peoples Food Program, a grassroots effort through Black Lives Matter, when he saw a heavy police presence near the memorial.
Newsome and his sister decided to make sure everything was okay. “They should be free to mourn,” he said, adding that cops were even asking people on park benches to move along.
Newsome said he was taken to PSA 7 in the Bronx and released with a summons for failure to disperse.
“They only do that in our communities,” Newsome said. “I just don’t understand how I can be arrested for quote-unquote shouting at police when we’ve seen videos of armed white men yelling at police and not practicing social distancing. It’s purely racist.”
“If you look at the tape, I was walking away,” Newsome added.