Nationwide protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police were met, in many cities, by even more police violence. In New York City, dozens of incidents in which police responded with excessive force were caught on camera. But so far, the department says only four NYPD cops have been disciplined.
The NYPD has had excessive force problems for years and years, but even folks familiar with cases of NYPD misconduct may still be surprised to learn that the department continues to twiddle its thumbs in the midst of an unprecedented protest movement.
On Twitter over the past several months, T. Greg Doucette did yeoman's work tracking and maintaining a thread of hundreds of violent responses by police directed toward protesters, media covering protesters, and people just in the vicinity of the protests. His thread currently ends at 775 tweets.
It looks like many people used these protests as an excuse to lash out and engage in violent and dangerous behavior. Some of them were rioters and looters breaking into stores and setting fires. And some others were men and women in uniform, carrying badges and guns, looking for a reason to hit people.
The New York Times has looked over video footage showing the NYPD responding to protesters (some of which they gathered from Doucette's feed) and found case after case of officers shoving, beating, and violently assaulting people who do not appear to be engaging in illegal behavior or, often, even resisting the police. They looked at 60 incidences of troubling behavior by NYPD officers in just the first 10 days of protests.
In one video, in less than a minute, the same police officer harshly shoves an unresisting protester to the pavement, pushes a cyclist, and then picks up and body slams a third protester who was standing and pointing at the gathered police officers as they were apparently breaking up a protest. In another, police beat a man on the ground after chasing him, and one even steps on the man's neck, notable given that Floyd died from having an officer kneel on his neck for several minutes.
The Times looked over video of police just randomly lashing out and shoving people as they walked by them. They found a video of police officers slamming a man to the ground after he had been arrested and they were leading him away. They found video footage of an NYPD officer grabbing a man and hurling him into a parked car, but not arresting him, and just leaving his body on the street.
And despite the constant refrain from police that these are "isolated incidents," the Times found behavior repeating itself and multiple examples of each questionably violent response from police.
The Times acknowledges that the videos lack full context, and we don't see what happened before or after these violent outbursts. But they also note that the city's policing guidelines order officers to use only the amount of reasonable force "necessary to gain control or custody of a subject."
An NYPD spokesperson told the Times that four officers have been disciplined for their conduct during the protests in late May and early June, and the department is investigating 51 other instances of possible protest-related police misconduct. The spokesperson declined to actually watch or respond to any specific videos. The Police Benevolent Union that represents most NYPD officers also declined to respond to the Times.
But experts were willing to look over the videos at the Times behest, and while they found some uses of force acceptable (to detain those who were trying to evade arrest), many other incidents raised concerns.
"A lot of this was 'street justice,'" Philip M. Stinson told the Times. Stinson is a criminologist at Bowling Green University and a former police officer who focuses on studying police use of forces. He saw many of these cases as "gratuitous acts of extrajudicial violence doled out by police officers on the street to teach somebody a lesson." He described some of the tactics he saw as "sloppy" and "downright criminal."
Weeks after the protests, people in New York City (and elsewhere) are still capturing and distributing disturbing footage of NYPD misconduct. Here's police body camera footage from late May that was publicly released Tuesday showing a transit officer getting shockingly violent when a homeless man mildly resisted getting tossed off a train for the crime of taking up more than one seat (even though the train car was mostly empty):
— Rosa Goldensohn (@RosaGoldensohn) July 15, 2020
The transit officers then pepper-sprayed the man while he was simply standing against a wall in the train station terrified and begging them to stop. He required medical treatment after the encounter. More body camera footage can be viewed here.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance's office responded to this encounter by filing felony assault charges not against the officer but against the homeless man, identified only as Joseph T. by New York media outlet The City.
Joseph was arrested for resisting arrest and "obstructing government administration." Arresting officer Adonis Long claimed that while they were cuffing him on the platform, Joseph kicked Long's right hand. As a result, Long "sustained swelling and substantial pain to the knuckles of his right hand and was transported to the hospital." And so prosecutors subsequently added felony assault charges. The video, meanwhile, shows Long striking Joseph across the face twice before dragging him off the train. Maybe that's how he hurt his hand?
Even as his office defends overcharging a homeless man, Vance says he supports efforts to defund and scale back policing. Just last week he penned an op-ed in the New York Amsterdam News, writing in part:
In light of the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, it is unquestionable that substantial community reinvestment is essential to our era's antiracist criminal justice reckoning, and that grassroots organizations based in communities of color severely harmed by police violence and unnecessary incarceration should receive the bulk of funds divested from law enforcement.
Reinvesting taxpayer dollars into our historically underserved communities of color demonstrates that municipal leaders are listening and acting on the democratic principle of the "consent of the governed," which holds that the moral right to use state power is only justified to the extent that our constituents consent to it. So too do other actions taken by state and city governments, including banning police use of chokeholds, making police misconduct reports public, and ending qualified immunity. But these actions over the past weeks don't suggest our work, as government and law enforcement leaders, is anywhere close to healing centuries of trauma caused by systemic racism in our justice system.
It's unclear how terrorizing a homeless man on a train helps achieve these goals Vance says he supports. Going after the rotten cops captured on video seems to better fit the bill.
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