More than 10,000 New York City residents have died of the coronavirus in recent weeks. Life in the city has been upended, replaced by a surreal stillness and the endless wail of ambulance sirens. But for the New York Police Department, it’s largely business as usual.
On Friday night, a group of police officers was filmed at a Harlem subway station as they grabbed and restrained a child who was apparently selling chips and candy. In the video, the officers are seen struggling with the boy, who is crying, and kicking a bag of snacks he was holding, while a woman claiming to be the child’s mother begs them to let him go and bystanders angrily shout that he is “a little boy.” The incident came hours after a different group of officers was filmed violently arresting a man at a different subway station, reportedly after they told people waiting for a train on a crowded platform that they needed to disperse, and the man replied that there was no way to do so.
“Government and businesses are drastically modifying practices to limit physical contact, and yet that practice has not been implemented by NYPD.”
Incidents such as these are hardly unheard of in New York, but as the city grapples with an unprecedented public health emergency and New Yorkers are told to minimize all contact with one another, many have questioned the logic and safety of police continuing to execute low-level arrests and physically escalating interventions that even in normal times seem unnecessary at best. In a letter sent last week to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, attorneys at the Legal Aid Society called the city’s failure to curb nonessential arrests at this time “highly irresponsible.”
“We are deeply concerned that our New York City government officials have not modified or reassessed how the NYPD interacts with already vulnerable communities,” reads the letter, which was shared with The Intercept. “In every aspect of life, we are expected to act responsibly in order to flatten the curve. As part of a coordinated Covid-19 response by Mayor de Blasio, government and businesses are drastically modifying practices to limit physical contact, and yet that practice has not been implemented by NYPD. In cities across our country, elected officials are directing police to use discretion, make only ‘necessary contacts’ and to slow down arrests. Mayor de Blasio has made no such similar request of the NYPD.”
The NYPD and the mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The number of arrests in the city has dropped in recent weeks as crime has plummeted. But particularly in poorer neighborhoods that are home to many essential workers — the neighborhoods where the risk of contracting the virus is highest and where aggressive policing is most common — arrests over minor, nonviolent offenses and “quality of life” infractions have continued. As The Intercept reported earlier this month, police now also have a new reason to stop and arrest people: failure to socially distance. About 15 people who have violated the distancing measures have reportedly been arrested so far.
“What we are concerned with the most is that the NYPD is utilizing their resources for low-level enforcement of quality of life offenses rather than concentrating and reallocating their resources to what should actually be a priority in this pandemic,” Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney at Legal Aid’s Cop Accountability Project, told The Intercept. “Low-level enforcement like a kid selling candy on a subway car should not be a policing priority ever and especially in the middle of a pandemic. … These are issues that could be better addressed with community alternatives, with public health alternatives, connecting somebody to resources. It’s not something that is best addressed with policing and criminalization.”
In their letter, Legal Aid attorneys asked city officials to ban criminalization of the failure to socially distance — a failure that is in fact not a crime and that de Blasio had promised would result in fines at most. They also called on the city to refrain from conducting sweeps of homeless encampments if it couldn’t provide individual housing units for those it was dispersing, reduce custodial arrests and the number of officers on duty, and provide every on-duty officer with personal protective gear. While the department has recently provided officers with tens of thousands of masks and latex gloves, following a complaint by the city’s largest police union, some officers are still patrolling and even making arrests without protective gear. They are also regularly failing to practice social distancing, even with as much as 20 percent of the force calling out sick in recent weeks and after nearly 7 percent, more than 2,400 people, tested positive for the virus. While some precincts moved their daily roll calls outdoors in an effort to promote better distancing, not all precincts have done so, and officers have continued to keep close contact with one another, even without masks.
“NYPD has a responsibility to the public and to their officers to enact policies that reflect the advice of public health experts,” Legal Aid wrote. “The NYPD has not changed its protocols even in light of this rapidly spreading virus, where the infection rate amongst NYPD personnel is eight times that of New York City, and 10 times higher than the rest of New York state.”
Policing a Pandemic
New York police are not alone as they continue to make arrests that seem to defy all logic and public health recommendations. Last week, the Philadelphia Transit Authority reversed its policy mandating face coverings for riders after four Philadelphia police officers were filmed forcibly dragging an unmasked man off a city bus over his failure to cover his face. And in Miami, a doctor who has been working to help homeless people during the pandemic was detained while loading his van when police thought he was “illegally offloading trash.”
“It’s endemic of the overall overreliance on police in American culture to solve all of our societal ills,” said Wong. “And in this case, to try to police our way out of this pandemic, which we just can’t.”
But at least in New York, police have responded to the pandemic differently depending on the neighborhood. If in parts of the city their new role has become “breaking up crowds at Trader Joe’s,” in others, residents accustomed to aggressive policing feel that not much has changed at all.
Legal Aid mapped all the 311 calls made in the first two weeks of April that were tagged as related to “social distancing” and found that most came from gentrified neighborhoods like Harlem, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg. But the analysis also showed that police tended to respond to those calls mostly in poorer neighborhoods, for instance in the Bronx. “Even if these are the neighborhoods where people are snitching on their neighbors, police are taking action in particular neighborhoods more than others,” said Wong, adding that the data is limited to what police report publicly and doesn’t include information on the summons they issue, which is not public.
As more than 700 officers saw their duties shift to social distancing enforcement, for residents of already heavily policed neighborhoods, social distancing has become just one more reason for police to stop them. “It’s the same kind of enforcement, they’re just developing a new spin on it,” Mick Schommer, who lives in Harlem, told The Intercept.
For residents of heavily policed neighborhoods, social distancing has become just one more reason for police to stop them.
In late March, Schommer was one of several people who filmed a group of police officers as they arrested a man on a sidewalk in Harlem. It’s not clear from the video what happened before the man was arrested — some bystanders told Schommer that he was talking to another person and others said he was stopped for spitting on the sidewalk. One of the officers can be heard telling someone who asked why police were holding the man that it was “because of coronavirus.” Schommer added that the man had been wearing a mask but that he lost his mask as two officers, unmasked, arrested him. Police told bystanders that they were waiting for an ambulance for the man, but instead loaded him, headfirst, into a police van.
“If that was the violation, why would seven cops take a man, throw him up against the wall, demask him, and then dump him into a patty wagon as a way to enforce social distancing?” said Schommer. “It stretches the line of credibility, but this is also not unusual.”
Schommer added that in the days since the incident, he has repeatedly seen police in Harlem ordering young people to disperse, even as people in line at grocery stores stand closely to one another. “I have seen unmasked cops and ungloved cops breaking up people for social distancing and for not wearing masks, when they themselves aren’t,” he added.
But what struck him the most was the clear disparity in the ways social distancing was enforced depending on the race and apparent wealth of those violating it. “I live near Marcus Garvey Park and Central Park,” Schommer noted as an example. “Central Park is packed full of people running as normal and walking as normal. Marcus Garvey Park is empty because of the consistent patrol of cops.”
“You can walk through anywhere in Central Harlem, and you can see hundreds of examples of the disparity.”