'I Was Not Happy With What I Saw:' Shea Reacts To Violent Arrest During Social-Distancing Enforcement

Steve Burns
May 04, 2020 - 10:30 am

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- An NYPD officer who was caught on video Saturday pointing a stun gun at a man and violently taking him to the ground over an alleged social-distancing violation has been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty pending an internal investigation.

Bystander video showed the plainclothes officer, who was not wearing a protective face mask, slapping 33-year-old Donni Wright in the face, punching him in the shoulder and dragging him to a sidewalk after leveling him in a crosswalk near East Ninth Street and Avenue D in the East Village.

Police spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Frances O'Donnell said Wright "took a fighting stance against the officer'' when he was ordered to disperse and was arrested on charges including assault on a police officer and resisting arrest.

The charges have been deferred pending further investigation, a Manhattan District Attorney’s Office spokesperson said. A message seeking comment was left with the police officers union.

During his daily briefing Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said this is one incident and it shouldn't cast a shadow on strides that have been made.

"This video was very troubling, what I saw was absolutely unacceptable and obviously discipline was swift by the NYPD, but I want to note that that video is more and more of a rarity, we still have work to do unquestionably, but the progress is very clear to see," de Blasio said.

Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said he is aware of the video and the incident is being investigated by Internal Affairs.

"I was not happy with what I saw. I think we can be better than that quite frankly," Shea said. "But I think you need to look at it in the context of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of encounters across the city whether it's through routine encounters, arrests, taking guns of people without firing shots, certainly summonsing many people. I think the deescalation training that was put in place in years' past and continues is yet another tool in the tool box and I think it's effective. I wish it was 100 percent effective, but that's not unfortunately the world that we live in. But we'll learn from it as we do from any example, continue to train and try to get better."

"I would also remind you that deescalation takes two, unfortunately," Shea added.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said it's a bad start for the department when it comes to social-distancing enforcement. He said it's "clearly in violation of all police procedures."

"We are going to have more interactions with the public due to coronavirus than we have ever had in probably the history of the New York City police department," Adams said. "A light touch with a high level of communication is what is needed."

Adams said more clarity and consistency is necessary for the NYPD's enforcement of the rules.

Wright’s arrest and that of two other people minutes earlier on the same block across from a public housing complex raised new questions about the police department’s use of force, the role of officers in enforcing social distancing measures and inconsistency in how they’re applied.

PBA President Patrick J. Lynch called the situation "untenable."

“The NYPD needs to get cops out of the social distancing enforcement business altogether. The cowards who run this city have given us nothing but vague guidelines and mixed messages, leaving the cops on the street corners to fend for ourselves. Nobody has a right to interfere with a police action. But now that the inevitable backlash has arrived, they are once again throwing us under the bus," Lynch said. "Meanwhile, those same politicians are still watering down our laws, releasing real criminals and discouraging proactive enforcement of fare evasion and quality of life issues. As a result, our subways are in chaos and we have hero nurses getting mugged on their way to our hospitals. As the weather heats up and the pandemic continues to unravel our social fabric, police officers should be allowed to focus on our core public safety mission. If we don’t, the city will fall apart before our eyes.”

The manner of Wright’s arrest appeared to echo that of 20-year-old Fitzroy Gayle, who was seen on bystander video pleading for help as several officers wrestled him into submission on a Brooklyn sidewalk in early March.

Jennvine Wong, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project, said footage of the arrests Saturday stood in sharp contrast to photos and video — including some tweeted out by the police department — showing officers in crowded city parks handing out face masks and gently reminding people to stay 6 feet apart.

“This certainly isn’t the first time and this isn’t even the first time in this pandemic that we’ve seen evidence of discriminatory policing by the NYPD,” Wong said.

Carolyn Martinez-Class, of the police watchdog Communities United for Police Reform, said: “This incident illustrates why public health professions and community partners should be responsible for social distancing education and creating norms — not police.”

The police department assigned 1,000 officers to social distancing patrols over the weekend as temperatures reached the high 70s. On Saturday, they issued 51 summonses, including 43 in city parks. At a news conference Sunday, Shea said he was aware of just three arrests.

Minutes before the confrontation with Wright, video from a nearby security camera showed officers used force in arresting a couple for allegedly failing to comply when asked to disperse. O’Donnell said officers saw that one of them, a 31-year-old man, had a “bag of alleged marijuana in plain view.”

The bystander video of Wright’s arrest showed the plainclothes officer, Francisco Garcia, helping take one of those people to the ground before turning his attention to Wright, who was moving toward the area of that arrest from about 10 to 15 feet away.

Garcia — in a black T-shirt, jeans and a Yankees cap — turned toward Wright and cursed at him to “(get) back right now,” according to the video. At the same time, the officer pulls up his Taser and points it toward Wright, possibly triggering the device.

Garcia continued toward Wright and eventually holstered his Taser. It wasn’t clear what Wright was doing because he wasn’t in the frame the entire time, though just before Garcia tackled him, he was seen stopping and standing in front of the officer with what appeared to be a clenched fist at his side.

“What you flexing for? Don’t flex,” Garcia said, before grabbing Wright and wrestling him to the ground, slapping and punching him in the process. The officer then took Wright’s arm and dragged him from the crosswalk where he landed back onto the sidewalk and pushed him onto his stomach.

The video then showed another officer stepping in and helping handcuff Wright.

Kneeling on the top of Wright’s back or neck to keep him down, the plainclothes officer started jawing and cursing at bystanders.

One of them yelled back: “he didn’t even do nothing.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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