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NYPD Brass Blamed for ‘Abuse of Authority’ that Drove Excessive Force in George Floyd Protest Crackdowns

Mayor de Blasio apologized to New Yorkers after a city report found too many cops were underprepared and went overboard in policing the largely peaceful demonstrations.

December 18, 2020 Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
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This article was originally published on by THE CITY

An unprepared NYPD often overreacted during the mass police misconduct protests that stretched across the five boroughs last spring and summer after the killing of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis, the city Department of Investigation found.

An 115-page DOI report released early Friday details a pattern of excessive use of force by improperly trained cops who at times escalated conflict when de-escalation was required. Black protesters were disproportionately arrested on the most serious charges, the report found.

And while DOI noted that “some police officers engaged in actions that were at a minimum unprofessional and at worst unjustified excessive force or abuse of authority,” the report directed its criticism squarely at the top brass of Police Commissioner Dermot Shea’s NYPD.

“The problems went beyond poor judgment or misconduct of some individual officers,” the report stated. “The department itself made a number of key errors or omissions that likely escalated tensions and certainly contributed to both the perception and the reality that the department was suppressing rather than facilitating lawful First Amendment assembly and expression.”

Shortly after the report was issued at 7 a.m. Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio apologized to New Yorkers via a Twitter video: “I’m sorry I didn’t do better,” he said.

The NYPD came under fire for over-policing in its response to the protests, which began May 28, three days after Floyd, who is Black, died because a white police officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

The rolling demonstrations  — also fueled by years of other police killings of Black people across the country, including Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Eric Garner on Staten Island— drew tens of thousands of New Yorkers.

The largely peaceful calls for racial justice ran day and night, from outside Gracie Mansion to the plaza of the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn to the streets of Mott Haven in The Bronx, where Human Rights Watch accused the NYPD of violating human rights laws during a June 4 protest.

DOI’s report acknowledged that the massive protests taking place at the same time across the city did not allow the department to plan ahead, noting, “By any measure the first 10 days of the Floyd protests in New York City presented an extraordinary policing challenge.”

And the report made a point of acknowledging that in some instances protesters contributed to the chaos. “Emotions ran high amongst protesters and in some cases spilled over into abuse and violence directed at police officers on duty, which this report does not excuse or condone,” the report states.

‘I Wish I Had Done Better’

Early Friday, de Blasio declared that he accepts the findings of the report, which was compiled by Margaret Garnett, the commissioner of DOI he appointed in late 2018.

“I’m reflecting on what happened in May and June and I look back with remorse,” de Blasio said in the video. “I wish I had done better. I want everyone to understand that. And I’m sorry I didn’t do better.  And I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons and I want the Police Department to do better. And I’m going to insist on that.”

DOI probers found conflicting sources on the total number of protest-related arrests. They examined one data set that included demographic information about 2,048 arrests from May 28 — Day One of the protests — through June 11.

Overall, whites accounted for 45% of those arrested, followed by Blacks at 38% and Hispanics at 13%. Census figures show the city’s population is 42% non-Hispanic white, 24% Black, 29% Hispanic and 14% Asian.

Most of the charges related to the protests were misdemeanors or violations, but DOI found a racial tilt to the arrests for the most serious charges: Black people accounted for 68% of the 166 felony arrests.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Protesters laid down in the middle of Flatbush Avenue in honor of George Floyd during one of the many demonstrations in the city, May 31, 2020.

DOI offered what it conceded was an incomplete portrait of injuries suffered during the protests and their aftermath.

The NYPD produced data stating 386 officers were hurt during protests, compared to 108 protesters. DOI noted that many protesters did not report injuries to authorities.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) tallied 248 incidents occurring between May 28 and June 20 that resulted in 1,646 allegations of police misconduct. Most of those allegations involve excessive use of force and all are the subject of pending investigations.

The report also cited violence by protesters and looters during and after some nights of largely peaceful protest. Investigators noted numerous cases of police vehicles damaged or set on fire, and pointed to looting that occurred May 31 through June 2 mostly in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, but also along shopping corridors in The Bronx.

No ‘Clearly Defined Strategy’

DOI noted that the Police Benevolent Association did not cooperate with DOI’s investigators, nor did former Chief of Patrol Fausto Pichardo, who resigned suddenly in October after a conflict with de Blasio.

And DOI did not examine the actions of individual officers during the protests due to pending lawsuits and ongoing investigations by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau and the independent CCRB.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
“We expect better, we demand better,” City Hall employee Catherine Almonte said of the mayor during June 8 protest.

“DOI’s investigation identified several deficiencies in the NYPD’s response to the Floyd protests that undermined confidence in the NYPD’s discharge of its responsibilities to protect the rights of citizens to engage in lawful protest,” the report states.

The report faulted five major aspects of the NYPD’s approach to the protests:

  • The Police Department “lacked a clearly defined strategy” to respond to large protests, and instead defaulted to “disorder control tactics and methods without adjustment to reflect the NYPD’s responsibility for facilitating lawful First Amendment expression.” During the May 28 initial protests in Manhattan, NYPD made 75 arrests — 42% in which the top charges were related to public disorder and 30% in which the top charge was obstructing governmental administration.
  • Police engaged in the overuse of force, in particular by employing “kettling” — trapping protesters by surrounding them with officers. This signified a “failure to calibrate an appropriate balance valid public safety or officer safety interests and the rights of protesters to assemble and express their views.”
  • The Police Department’s enforcement of de Blasio’s short-lived curfew was inconsistently applied and “generated legitimate public concerns about selective enforcement.” Protesters and public officials pointed to eruptions of violence by police suddenly deciding to clear the streets.
  • The NYPD overreacted at times based on flawed information about the nature of protests. For instance, DOI asserted that the mass arrests of protesters in Mott Haven based on police “intelligence” about a potential threat by some protesters “was disproportionate to the circumstances.”
  • Most officers assigned to protests had no training on how to respond to such events. Even after Shea ordered specialized training following criticism of the initial response, DOI found the instruction still did not focus on de-escalation.

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