Social-Distancing Arrests Bring Charges of NYPD Bias

Accusations that New York City police used excessive force and targeted minorities while enforcing social distancing and face-mask rules have undercut Mayor Bill de Blasio’s six-year campaign to get officers to avoid escalating street encounters.

De Blasio said Thursday that civilian community groups will take a greater role in social-distancing enforcement after Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, several City Council members and state Attorney General Letitia James demanded the department enforce the rules more fairly.

“The apparent unequal enforcement of social distancing policies is deeply troubling and deepens the divide between law enforcement and the people they are tasked to protect,” James said Wednesday, as she released a letter to the department demanding data on who’s receiving summonses and arrests.

The incidents conflict with de Blasio’s vision of a department that he has touted as transformed. Tens of thousands of officers were trained in de-escalation techniques following the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who died of cardiac arrest after police subdued him with a choke hold during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes. De Blasio’s 2013 election came after he vowed to sharply reduce stop-and-frisk tactics that had been disproportionately used against minorities.

New York City’s officers want no part of social-distancing enforcement, said Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch. “This situation is untenable,” he said, adding that officers have received no practical guidance, “leaving the cops on the street corners to fend for ourselves.”

The latest incident occurred Wednesday morning, when police confronted a woman with a young child inside a Brooklyn subway station after she refused to cover her mouth and nose with a face mask worn around her neck, and cursed at them. Arecording showed her slapping an officer’s hand as he touched her, and then three officers forcing her to the ground to handcuff her.

Of 374 summonses issued for social-distancing violations from March 16 to May 5, about 80% were given to black or Hispanic people, the NYPD said last week.

In her Wednesday letter to Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, James referred to aMay 2 East Village incident in which plainclothes officers — “themselves not wearing protective masks” — arrested a black man and his girlfriend whom they accused of ignoring an order to disperse. They apprached with a Taser drawn before tackling, punching and handcuffing the man. AMay 3 video showed officers arresting black people grouped in front of their Brooklyn homes, and in once instance “forcefully body-slamming a man.”

De Blasio said he plans to enlist religious groups and community organizations, but he has refused to remove police from enforcing virus-related regulations. “It’s clear we have to improve the supervision, the training, the protocols, the game plan for a very complex situation,” he said.

The mayor and Shea describe the recent incidents as outliers in a department that generally has shown restraint, and pledged that excessive force or wrongdoing will be met with discipline.

“Disparities exist in every facet of life, not just in New York City but in this country and it’s rooted in much deeper issues than theNew York City Police Department,” Shea said during a news briefing with the mayor Wednesday. “I will push back strongly on any notion that this is business as usual for the NYPD or that this is ‘racist police.’”

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