In the ninth week of the shutdown, New York City officials have repeatedly said there’s no template, let alone hard-and-fast rules, for how police should enforce social distancing orders. Reporters and police watchdogs called out what appeared to be the department’s uneven enforcement over the past weekend, during which they say officers handed out masks in parks largely packed with white residents but aggressively enforced social distancing orders in minority communities.
Officer Francisco Garcia was placed on “modified assignment,” pending an investigation into the Saturday arrest in the East Village, according to New York City police.
In the video, the officer identified as Garcia appears to be holding a stun gun as he approaches a man in a crosswalk. The officer can be seen yelling at the man — later identified as 33-year-old Donni Wright — before forcing him to the ground, hitting him and kneeling on his neck.
Wright was later hospitalized with severe injuries to his back, ribs and chest, his mother, Donna Wright, told the New York Daily News.
The NYC Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the incident involving Garcia.
Just before Wright was arrested, Garcia and other plainclothes officers stopped to investigate a corner where they saw people “walking by, milling about” and not wearing masks, Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea said Monday. Garcia and several officers in the video were also not wearing masks during the arrest.
Garcia was among 1,000 officers dispatched over the warm weekend to enforce social distancing.
“Why are sunbathers who violate social distancing guidelines treated one way and young men in certain communities another,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) recently tweeted, citing a separate Saturday incident in Brooklyn where New York police are seen on video forcefully arresting three people accused of refusing to follow distancing orders.
Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) called the video of Wright’s arrest “very troubling” and “unacceptable” at a Monday news conference but insisted it is not an accurate reflection of most social distancing enforcement and praised what he said was the NYPD’s increased focus on de-escalation practices.
Shea echoed the mayor and largely defended his officers while acknowledging he was “not happy” with some of what he saw in the video of the Manhattan arrest. “I think we can be better than that,” he said.
The NYPD said police started making arrests on the corner after spotting a bag of marijuana and said Garcia felt threatened because Wright “took a fighting stance against the officer” when ordered to disperse. The department said officers recovered a Taser, $3,000 in cash and the bag of marijuana at the scene.
Wright’s mother said her son approached the scene because he saw police arresting a family friend, with his lawyer calling the violent arrest “unprovoked.” Charges against Wright included assault on a police officer and resisting arrest; they were later deferred by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office pending further investigation.
Some civil rights groups say what city officials characterize as an ever-evolving policy on social distancing enforcement is simply part of a broader, preexisting pattern of unequal policing.
“This certainly isn’t the first time and this isn’t even the first time in this pandemic that we’ve seen evidence of discriminatory policing by the NYPD,” Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney with the Cop Accountability Project at the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement. The organization noted that Garcia was the subject of at least six lawsuits that were settled for more than $182,000.
Because Shea has said there’s no “hard and fast rule” on how or even whether plainclothes officers should aggressively enforce social distancing, Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch in a statement called the entire situation “untenable.”
“The NYPD needs to get cops out of the social distancing enforcement business altogether,” Lynch said.