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Report: NYPD officers didn't racially profile people when enforcing COVID-19 rules

Two NYPD officers patrol Brooklyn's Domino Park as

Two NYPD officers patrol Brooklyn's Domino Park as they enforce social distancing rules and hand out face masks during the coronavirus pandemic in May 2020. Credit: Sipa USA / Anthony Behar via AP

A special federal court monitor overseeing the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk reforms determined that "the vast majority" of officers acted appropriately and didn’t use racially motivated stops to enforce face mask and social distancing mandates as the coronavirus pandemic intensified.

In a 43-page report submitted in Manhattan to U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres recently, attorney Peter Zimroth — who was appointed in 2014 to oversee NYPD reforms after the city settled a major lawsuit against police stops, questions and frisk tactics — said that while police social distancing enforcement received a lot of media attention and generated controversy, officers didn’t extensively use arrests or summonses to enforce that authority.

But Jonathan Moore, co-counsel for the alleged victims of stop-and-frisk and advocates representing them in the lawsuit, insisted that the numbers for summonses and arrests in social distancing enforcement — while relatively low — reflected what goes on in the city.

"The reality is that most people affected by social distancing enforcement were Black and Latino…[Zimroth] really doesn’t come to grips with that," Moore said.

NYPD's social distancing actions drew criticism last summer from civil rights attorneys and groups over the way most of the people given summonses or arrested for violations, close to 90% by NYPD data, were Black and Latino.

Vocal critics of the police social distancing actions included plaintiffs in the Floyd v. City of New York case which in 2013 saw a different federal judge — U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin — label stop-and-frisk "indirect racial profiling" because it targeted minority groups

During the 2020 controversy over police social distancing enforcement, plaintiffs in the Floyd case tried to use the 2013 ruling, arguing that similar racial disparities existed in the way the NYPD was enforcing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s March 2020 face mask and social distancing rules. Enforcement eventually shifted to the city sheriff in July 2020.

The plaintiffs wanted Torres to issue an injunction, a move both Zimroth and city attorneys opposed. Torres denied an injunction but asked Zimroth to study NYPD enforcement actions.

In a letter to Torres accompanying his Oct. 12 report, Zimroth noted that there were 141 arrests for social distancing violations and 520 summonses during the four months officers enforcing the rules, an average of 1.8 arrests per precinct and 6.8 summonses per precinct per month. Zimoth also noted that given that there were 1,629 calls to 911 related to COVID-19 rule violations and some 60,307 calls to 311, NYPD action "appears quite low."

NYPD officials embraced Zimroth’s report.

"Only in a small number of instances, and as a last resort, did officers have to resort to issuing summonses during the height of the pandemic," NYPD spokesman Al Baker said.

"We are pleased with the Federal Monitor’s findings of NYPD efforts to protect the public in the face of an unprecedented crisis," said Nick Paolucci, spokesman for the New York City Law Department.

The police reform group Communities United for Police Reform said in a statement this week that officers last year targeted communities of color under the guise of COVID-19 enforcement while handling people in Williamsburg and Long Island City gently by giving out masks.

"The NYPD disproportionately targets Black and Latinx New Yorkers in unconstitutional stops on a routine basis, their enforcement of COVID protocols last year was no different, " the reform group said.

Zimroth and his team of investigators concluded "that the majority (indeed the vast majority) of NYPD’s social distancing enforcement did not involve suspicionless and racially motivated stops and frisks, and thus feel beyond the ambit of [the stop and frisk lawsuit]." Zimroth did say that body camera videos showed one incident where there wasn’t probable cause for an arrest or summons and one video where a cop made a stop without reasonable suspicion.

Zimroth noted that there was a "significant correlation between the non-white population in a given precinct and the number of enforcement actions in those precincts."

Zimroth added that a closer look found the correlation was likely due to specific events in three precincts that generated multiple enforcement actions. The incidents, totaling 118 summonses, included people in an illegal bottle club in Brooklyn, a street gathering also in Brooklyn and a case of shots being fired at police during a gathering in Queens, the report detailed.

Police Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch said in a statement cops should never have been responsible for enforcing COVID-19 rules. He called Zimroth’s report a "fruitless fishing expedition."

Moore said that lawyers in the stop-and-frisk case were considering their options in light of Zimroth’s report.

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