Even During a Pandemic, the NYPD Is Still the NYPD

NYPD van and cyclist.
NYPD van and cyclist. Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Everything about this pandemic affirms the logic of a vastly diminished role for the NYPD in daily life, from high rates of infection among its rank and file to the inanity of packing jails, which have become viral hotbeds. Instead, its officers are being used to enforce New York’s social-distancing rules and have approached them as police agencies typically do public-health crises, like mental illness and drug abuse in the past — that is, with a mix of misplaced strategic priorities and unnecessary violence.

The latest and most egregious example came over the weekend, when the arrest of Donni Wright was captured on video. Wright was a bystander during the NYPD detention of two people in the East Village on Saturday who were allegedly violating the social-distancing order announced by Governor Cuomo in March; Mayor de Blasio has authorized $500 citations for those who don’t stay six feet away from each other in public. The video shows officer Francisco Garcia, who wasn’t wearing a protective mask, pointing a taser at Wright, then tackling him to the ground while punching him numerous times. A department spokesperson told reporters that Wright had taken a “fighting stance” against Garcia, but charges were deferred against the 33-year-old, pending an investigation into the incident, which has already led to Garcia being placed on desk duty.

The video went viral just as social media was awash with images of New Yorkers taking advantage of the balmy May weather. Some pointed to an enforcement imbalance, with people crowding parks in whiter and more affluent sections of the West Village left to their devices, despite clear violations of distancing and mask mandates, while nonwhite New Yorkers like Wright, Shakiem Brunson, and Ashley Serrano were singled out for brutal arrests by police who were themselves in violation of those mandates. The NYPD issued 51 summonses on Saturday and Sunday in addition to the three arrests, according to commissioner Dermot Shea.

The East Village incident succeeded examples of NYPD officers harassing people during patrols or enforcing “quality of life” regulations that brought them into unneeded contact with civilians who posed no threat. Officers detained a homeless child for selling candy on a subway in Harlem on April 15. A few days earlier, a group of police arrested a man while enforcing social-distancing protocol on an uptown subway platform so crowded that distancing was physically impossible. The tone of their interactions as captured on film has frequently been hostile; one video captured two officers driving past an apparently homeless man in Hell’s Kitchen, antagonizing him via megaphone for no apparent reason and threatening to “beat the shit out of” him, with one adding, “Suck my dick.” These scenes are unfolding against the backdrop of a departmentwide refusal to slow arrests, even for low-level offenses. The NYPD Transit Twitter account boasted over the weekend about busting a turnstile hopper who had a bag of marijuana in his backpack.

This is especially bad because jails are among the pandemic’s most effective vectors. Rikers Island has tallied upwards of 800 positive COVID-19 tests, a number that makes it the epicenter of New York City, itself the U.S. epicenter. Prisoners housed there allege widespread failure to meet the Department of Correction’s own standards of pandemic safety; some are packed 50 to a dormitory, sleep little more than a foot apart despite the sound of hacking coughs filling their nights, and are forced to sanitize surfaces using Irish Spring soap dunked in water because work-detail crews come too infrequently to keep them clean. Officials have heeded advice to decarcerate these “death cages” piecemeal, releasing hundreds of detainees over several weeks and at a perilously slow pace. But Shea says the department has no plans to reduce arrests to stop the coronavirus from spreading, meaning that even as prisoners are allowed to leave, more are incoming. This has an economic fallout for some people as well: A woman arrested in Brooklyn in April for allegedly defying distancing orders was asked not to come back to her job because her employer feared she might’ve been exposed to the virus in jail, according to the Intercept.

Meanwhile, each interaction forced by the NYPD brings the public into contact with an entity whose rate of infection rivals any citywide. More than 4,000 officers of the 36,000 in the department’s employ have tested positive; at one point, 20 percent of the NYPD was out sick, according to CNN. The risks are exemplified by incidents like Saturday’s, which found a group of police, many without masks or protective equipment, manhandling people who likely ended up in jail interacting with countless others. (A similar violent detention on Philadelphia’s SEPTA public-transit system in April has already prompted the agency to stop enforcing mask rules altogether, attesting to the issue’s nationwide prevalence.) Even as most NYPD officers avoid brutalizing their subjects, with some opting instead to pass out masks to those who don’t have them, they maintain full discretion— backed by the threat of violence and, for the indigent facing fines, greater financial ruin — to make the pandemic exponentially worse than it already is: a power misaligned with the public-health objectives they’ve been tasked with facilitating. Even the usually unhinged Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, has called for an end to using NYPD officers to enforce social distancing. (Though he rationalized his position by touting the petty offenses these officers could be punishing if given the extra time.)

Mayor de Blasio recently tweeted his commitment to “not [going] back to ‘normal’ and the status quo” after distancing orders are lifted, announcing several city commissions to oversee an equitable recovery that attacks racial and economic disparities. This is a wildly optimistic plan for several reasons, the foremost being the leadership of a mayor who fatally underestimated the pandemic from the outset and then singled out “the Jewish community” for being bad social-distancers. But an equitable recovery also bumps up against the obstinance of a law-enforcement apparatus that, even in the most reorienting of circumstances, appears incapable of changing its basic nature. The coronavirus has changed almost everything about how New Yorkers live. It has failed to change the NYPD. An institution that’s rarely met a challenge for which racially asymmetric violence wasn’t its default answer can be expected to behave exactly as its officers are behaving now. Why would a pandemic be any different?

Even During a Pandemic, the NYPD Is Still the NYPD