Some testimony about New York City police officers’ use of excessive force was inaccurate and demonstrations were more violent than police have seen in years, the city police commissioner testified Monday as part of New York’s investigation into police interactions with the public during recent protests.
New York state Attorney General Letitia James has received more than 300 telephone and email complaints as part of her investigation into interactions between the New York Police Department and the public during recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
“I’ve been in law enforcement for almost 30 years, I’ve done police details of demonstrations of 100,000 people .... no two protests are the same,” New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said Monday. “These protests stood out almost immediately from executives who had worked in decades and decades of experience. These were extremely violent — almost from the start — and the violence was directed toward the law enforcement personnel who were present.”
Some New York City demonstrations turned violent in late May and early June on the heels of the May 25 death of 46-year-old George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police. Shea said Monday city police responded with force after some demonstrations turned into criminal activity, including vandalism, arson, destruction of property and attacking police officers.
James’s office heard from more than 100 witnesses for 17 total hours of testimony in a two-day public hearing last Wednesday and Thursday, including protesters, eyewitnesses and police officers. Several testified Wednesday who claimed they were pepper-sprayed or saw unprovoked police respond with force during peaceful New York City demonstrations.
Some testified about incidents that have gone viral worldwide on social media, including a city police officer pulling back someone’s face mask to pepper spray them, two NYPD vehicles charging forward into crowds and an incident where an officer was criminally charged after video footage showed him pushing a female protester to the ground and not providing medical attention or assistance.
The officers who drove the NYPD SUVs into the Brooklyn crowd did not violate the department’s use-of-force policy, Shea said.
“I don’t want to mess up any internal investigations underway... but preliminarily, we have an account of that incident where the explanation is [officers] are being pelted by protesters... I think it’s plainly evident,” the commissioner explained, adding demonstrators threw bricks and rocks in an attempt to assault law enforcement.
“Certainly what we don’t want to do is have anyone injured, and that includes our officers. The officers were set upon, attacked and thankfully, they were able to get out of that situation in my knowledge.”
Officers were not given special instruction about how to respond to the recent demonstrations, Shea said.
“[Use of physical force] could be entirely appropriate under the law based on the circumstances,” he said. “There is no logical progression ... to the third or fourth step, depending on what that officer has faced.”
Shea said Monday police were attacked and things became violent toward law enforcement, prompting a firmer response, during several of the incidents eyewitnesses testified about last week. Many testified police reacted with force during peaceful demonstrations when the protesters had not remained peaceful or nonviolent.
“Every use has to be examined on the facts at the time,” Shea said. “Throwing bricks and rocks at a police officer is different from a crowd peacefully
protesting. Every incident has to be examined with what that officer is experiencing.”
Protesters threw rocks, cinderblocks, bricks and other projectiles at officers assigned to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn on May 29. Fires were set and Molotov cocktails were thrown at police vehicles, Shea said, adding police responded to thousands of demonstrators a day, with as many as 70 scheduled one Saturday.
“Cinderblocks were thrown at police,” he added. “On May 31, thousands entered the streets [of Manhattan] and looted stores.”
Nearly 400 New York Police Department were injured during the city riots, Shea said. More than 100 of the injured law enforcement officers have not returned to duty. Injured officers’ medical records were forwarded to James’s office as part of the investigation.
Ten or fewer New York City police officers are suspended or were disciplined for misconduct or excessive use of force following hundreds of complaints and reports to James’s office following recent citywide protests.
NYPD’s Internal Affairs department is investigating the officers’ conduct throughout the city’s demonstrations, Shea said.
“Unlawful activity and violations of our standards will be addressed,” he said. “We have already begun to do so.
“...I am thankful for their service during this challenging time, ending the riots and upholding the rule of law. That’s what neighborhood policing was designed to do.”
Shea discussed a controversial June 2 incident where officers engaged in an hours-long standoff with demonstrators on the Manhattan bridge.
“Thanks to a tremendous amount of discretion and restraint, the officers were able to disperse the group to Brooklyn from Manhattan,” he said, adding looters crossed the bridge the two nights prior to destroy and commit crimes against Manhattan businesses.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo blasted de Blasio for not utilizing the New York Police Department’s 38,000-plus members to curb the civil unrest. The mayor implemented a citywide curfew of 11 p.m. June 3, and an 8 p.m. curfew for the rest of the week through June 10. Shea said he was present for Cuomo and de Blasio’s conversations about a curfew, but was not involved in making the decision.
One officer was stabbed in the neck and two others were shot in a June 3 incident.
More than 5,500 NYPD members have been diagnosed with coronavirus COVID-19, Shea said, adding 45 members died from the virus. All members are mandated to wear masks while on patrol. Hundreds of witnesses testified they were arrested or had interactions with NYPD officers who did not wear face coverings.
The hearing resumed at 11 a.m. Monday for testimony and an interview with Shea. Last week, James said Shea and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio both did not respond to two separate invitations from her office to speak during the public hearing.
Last week, James’ hearing panel consisted of the attorney general and two appointed special advisors to support her investigation: Former Attorney General Loretta and New York University law professor Barry Friedman. Friedman is the founder and faculty director of the Policing Project at NYU Law.
James conducted Shea’s interview one-on-one Monday.