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City Council members question NYPD's social distancing enforcement

A City Council hearing Thursday with NYPD Commissioner

A City Council hearing Thursday with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, above in February, became heated at times over questions about the police department's social distancing enforcement.   Credit: Corey Sipkin

Members of the New York City Council questioned the NYPD's role in social distancing enforcement Thursday during a sometimes heated hearing with Commissioner Dermot Shea amid concerns the department has targeted minorities.

The issue of the cops being used as social distancing enforcers came up during the three-hour budget hearing in which some council members said the city's worsening fiscal situation required more cuts to the NYPD's budget, including canceling July's police academy class.

Social distancing has proved to be a hot-button issue for the NYPD after social media videos surfaced depicting cops fighting with people, sometimes in situations not involving social distancing enforcement. Critics, citing NYPD data, maintain that summonses for social distancing violations are issued disproportionately against blacks and Hispanics.

The latest video surfaced late Wednesday and depicted a 22-year-old Brooklyn woman with her child in a subway station refusing requests by officers she wear a face mask and then cursing them, officials said.

Councilwoman Inez Barron (D-Brooklyn) referenced the video to argue that social distancing enforcement by cops was “stop and frisk 2.0 [with] black and brown people being the targets of policing, summoning and arrests." Barron was referring to the controversial stop, question and frisk policies a decade ago.

But Shea pushed back and said the woman wasn’t arrested or issued a summons and the officers involved, all of whom were minorities, acted respectfully toward her the entire time. The woman apologized to officers at the precinct and told them she was going through some personal problems, Shea said.

Police and union officials have said NYPD officers are being put in a difficult situation enforcing the distancing rules, with little guidance or precedent. Even Shea agreed that enforcement can be tough.

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“You can train so far, you can de-escalate so far, it is not always as it is said,” Shea told council members.

On Wednesday, Chief of Department Terence Monahan told Newsday that cops found it “extremely frustrating when you go around breaking up funerals, breaking up weddings … it is contrary to police work.”

Some council members Thursday said cops shouldn’t be involved in distancing enforcement. It should be left to trained health professionals, according to Democratic council members Helen Rosenthal of Manhattan and Mark Treyger of Brooklyn.

Some Democratic council members, notably Donovan Richards and Daniel Dromm, both of whom represent Queens communities, favor cutting the July police academy class of more than 1,100 to save money since crime has dropped during the pandemic. But others disagreed, saying the pandemic crime drop is at best temporary. Recent NYPD data showed major crimes have begun to increase, including homicides.

Canceling the upcoming class would be “ludicrous” and “insane,” said Councilman Kalman Yeger (D-Brooklyn), since attrition would reduce police strength to “catastrophic levels.”

“It is no secret crime shot up in January,” Yeger said.

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