A video from a New York City subway platform shows a contentious moment that calls into question the New York Police Department's (NYPD) policing priorities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Portions of the interaction, which occurred at Harlem's 145th Street stop on April 10 at 7 p.m., were captured by bystander Shaquan Jenkins via cellphone.
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The video shows a group of NYPD officers holding onto the arms of a young boy. Bystanders in the background shout "that's a little boy" and accuse the officers of detaining the boy simply for selling candy and snacks on the train. As the video continues, a woman can be heard in the background identifying herself as the young boy's mother and telling officers to let him go. The young, crying boy struggles under the grasp of one of the officers.
Only some of the officers present are wearing personal protective equipment like masks.
Follow-up footage, which was shared by defense attorney Rebecca Kavanagh, shows the NYPD carrying the young boy out of the station and arresting an adult man who reportedly tried to come to the young boy's defense. It appears the man was the boy's stepfather.
Jenkins tells Reason via phone he was getting on the train when he first saw the young boy make an announcement about food he was selling. About two stops later, officers became involved. (The subsequent interaction was recorded on camera.) Jenkins says that the mother and stepfather identified themselves to officers. When officers wouldn't listen, Jenkins says the parents attempted to yank the young boy away. The stepfather was then arrested.
A spokesperson for the NYPD tells Reason the young boy was detained for being on his own, not for selling food. According to a statement from the department, a train conductor informed authorities that they saw a young boy "exiting and re-entering train cars over the course of several stations." When officers found the young boy, he told them that the parents were on a different part of the train.
"The child became uncooperative and upset, and for the child's safety, the officers physically restrained him," the statement reads. It alleges officers located the young boy's mother and stepfather several cars away and that the parents were uncooperative, demanding their son's release.
The family was instead escorted off the subway platform toward Transit District 3 station. While en route, the stepfather was arrested after he "confronted, and physically impeded officers." After arriving at the station, officers conferred with child protective services right and prepared two reports: one for a domestic incident and one for suspected child abuse and/or maltreatment. The stepfather was issued a court summons for disorderly conduct.
The young boy's mother, Alia, identified herself on Twitter, writing that their family is homeless and that her son was selling food out of necessity. Alia's tweet caught the eye of Janos Marton, a civil rights attorney who is now representing the family.
Marton says that the video "clearly shows" that the parents were in the vicinity of their son. At the time police became involved, the family was in the neighboring subway car.
"This whole family has been put through an enormous strain through this instant and right now they are weighing all their possible options."
As COVID-19 spreads through the country, many judges have sought out ways to minimize the risks to corrections facilities, including trying to keep low-level, nonviolent offenders out of the system altogether. Officials in New York City, which currently has over 120,000 COVID-19 cases, have called on the NYPD to modify its policing of low-level offenses in order to reduce crowding in jails. NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea responded by saying the NYPD has no intention of reducing enforcement.
Though the NYPD may be refusing to reduce arrests amid a pandemic, officers could have exercised more discretion in this interaction. There appears to have been some initial misunderstanding, but the officers still chose to forcibly restrain a distraught young boy to the point of pulling his jacket off and keeping him in their custody even after his parents identified themselves—all while possibly jeopardizing the health of the boy, his family, and others in close proximity.