NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, while acknowledging Monday that up to ten officers face discipline for their actions during recent protests and riots, defended the department's performance and pushed back at some claims of officer wrongdoing reiterated by Attorney General Letitia James.
Testifying via a video link to James, who is conducting an inquiry into NYPD actions during the protests over George Floyd's death, Shea said that he and his commanders tried to balance the rights of demonstrators with the welfare and rights of average citizens.
But from the beginning of the protests after the May 25 death of Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody, Shea said the violence escalated to a level not seen in the city for years. Molotov cocktails were thrown at police vehicles and cops pelleted with rocks, bricks and bottles, he said.
“While the current continuing protests are peaceful and continue, the city experienced turmoil in the early days … and unfortunately some of these demonstrations devolved into riots, unlawful assembly and acts of criminal behavior,” said Shea, adding that some took advantage of the activity to participate in "vandalism, arson, property destruction, looting and most notably targeted attacks against my police officers.”
Shea noted that nearly 400 officers were injured in the attacks in what he said was some of “the worst rioting that occurred in our city in recent memory.” Over 100 demonstrators were reported injured as well.
“I know they are tired, they are stressed and right now they feel unappreciated,” said Shea about the 36,000 uniformed members of the NYPD.
Shea’s testimony and exchanges with James took about an hour and generally were courteous, even when James repeated recent claims made by civilian witnesses in the prior two days of testimony that cops used pepper spray indiscriminately to enforce a curfew, corralled protesters to stop them moving in a tactic known as “kettling,” and covered their badge numbers and names.
“I don’t think that is an accurate statement,” Shea said, when asked by James about the use of pepper spray to enforce the curfew set in place after looting. “Pepper spray has been used certainly at time during these protests but it should be used for specific circumstances.”
Shea said that some officers were suspended over use of pepper spray during the protests, although he didn’t mention precise numbers.
Asked about officers covering their names and shield numbers, Shea said that during the COVID-19 pandemic he allowed cops to wear a black mourning band to honor those in the NYPD who died of the virus.
“I point out that at no time is that mourning band cover a name tag or nor should it cover a shield,” Shea said.
Reading questions from notes, James asked Shea when police use tactic of kettling. Shea answered that sometimes protests expand and cops have to make quick strategic decisions about pushing people in one direction to allow traffic, pedestrians and emergency medical staff freedom of movement. When James pressed Shea on whether an incident on the Manhattan Bridge was a form of corralling protesters, he wouldn’t concede the point.
“That was a tactical decision, Shea said, made against a backdrop of looting.
Shea said a report that an essential worker, a bicycle delivery man, was arrested for violating the curfew, was a “false report.”
James also asked Shea about his thoughts about defunding the police to help crisis intervention work. “With all due respect … I don’t see how this is relevant to acts of the protests,” Shea replied.
After James mentioned a video about an officer brandishing a gun during the protest, Shea said it didn’t merit discipline and didn’t think James outlined the facts accurately. He also said instances of misconduct should be investigated.
Shea also pushed back at James’s description of surrounded cops in Brooklyn seen driving forward into a crowd of protesters. James used the word “mow down.”
“What would you do if you were set upon and your life was in danger,” Shea asked rhetorically. “that description of running over peaceful protesters, I don’t think you’re beng fair.”