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NYC Department of Investigation report criticizes NYPD response to George Floyd protests

Members of the NYPD detain demonstrators on Sixth

Members of the NYPD detain demonstrators on Sixth Avenue and West 25th Street in Manhattan on June 2. Credit: Charles Eckert

The NYPD’s "use of force and control tactics" during May and June's George Floyd protests "produced excessive enforcement" against civilians — with deployment decisions that "exacerbated confrontations between police and protesters, rather than de-escalating tensions," a report by the New York City Department of Investigation has concluded.

At times, the report said, the NYPD "was suppressing rather than facilitating lawful First Amendment assembly and expression."

"New York City’s protests were largely peaceful and the actions of most police officers were appropriate," the report said, but the "NYPD’s use of force on protesters — encirclement (commonly called 'kettling'), mass arrests, baton and pepper spray use, and other tactics — reflected a failure to calibrate an appropriate balance between valid public safety or officer safety interests and the rights of protesters to assemble and express their views."

The videotaped death of George Floyd — a Black man killed May 25 in Minneapolis by a cop who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes — catalyzed nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, in addition to unrest, including some looting and rioting amid mostly nonviolent demonstrations over policing.

In New York City, about 2,000 people were arrested in the following weeks, according to the Department of Investigation. Its report found that the NYPD's tactics "failed to discriminate between lawful, peaceful protesters and unlawful actors," NYPD leadership "lacked a clearly defined strategy tailored to respond to the large-scale protests of police and policing," and some cops "engaged in actions that were, at a minimum, unprofessional and, at worst, unjustified excessive force or abuse of authority."

The report, totaling 115 pages, was commissioned in May by Mayor Bill de Blasio and released Friday by the office of Department of Investigation Commissioner Margaret Garnett, former chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District.

Garnett also faulted the mayor for issuing "unhelpful" public statements that a citywide curfew — which he imposed for several days beginning June 1 following some unrest and vandalism — would generally not be enforced against peaceful protesters. His executive order made no such exception, nor did NYPD's "inconsistent" execution, the report said.

Report's recommendations

The report recommends consolidating police oversight, currently a tripartite, into a "single agency, headed by an independent board." Other recommendations include:

  • reconsidering "the central role" of the Strategic Response Group and Disorder Control Unit in response to protests, "given their orientation to handle counterterrorism, riots, and other serious threats";
  • stage officers in "riot gear" or "hard uniforms," if being used, "in nearby areas not visible to protesters for deployment only if necessary";
  • expansion of "instruction on de-escalation and crowd psychology in training relating to policing protests."

De Blasio said he and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea accept the report and its recommendations and would implement them "right away."

De Blasio released what appeared to be a first for him in response to a Department of Investigation report — a video.

"I'm reflecting on what happened in May and June, and I look back with remorse. I wish I had done better. I want everyone to understand that. And I'm sorry I didn't do better ... and I want our police department to do better, and I'm going to insist upon that," said de Blasio, who for months has defended how the NYPD policed the protest.

In a statement released by the NYPD, Shea said of the recommendations: "I intend to incorporate into our future policy and training."

PBA responds

In a news release from the Police Benevolent Association, the labor union representing the NYPD’s rank and file, president Patrick Lynch said: "The DOI report confirms what police officers knew on the first night of riots: Our city leaders sent us out with no plan, no strategy and no support to deal with unrest that was fundamentally different from any of the thousands of demonstrations that police officers successfully protect every single year."

Beyond policing tactics, Garnett's report also validated complaints from the public that officers routinely covered up shield numbers, frustrating accountability, and refused to wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic — both in violation of department rules. But the investigation also found no evidence to support allegations, made at the time, that the NYPD purposefully let looting happen.

At a news conference Friday, Garnett said tactics used during the Floyd protests were reminiscent of those deployed, and ostensibly repudiated by the NYPD following past protest controversies and lawsuits, including Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and at the Republican National Convention in 2004: "It is déjà vu all over again in some areas."

And a joint news release from the Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union said, "Mayor de Blasio’s mea culpa comes a day late and a dollar short."

The "fundamental problem is a Department whose leadership and culture allowed the events of this summer to unfold, refuses to confront its own conduct, and does nothing to address the root causes of these long-standing problems," the statement said.

"This report confirms that the shocking violence the NYPD employed during the George Floyd protests was directly traceable to the leadership failures of Mayor de Blasio, Police Commissioner Shea and other police leaders who created a de facto policy permitting and encouraging individual officers to target protesters for brutal treatment and unlawful arrests," the statement said.

How the NYPD handled the unrest also is the subject of a separate investigation by the state attorney general, Letitia James. Her preliminary report, released in July, was based on interviews, videos and days of public testimony from people who said that cops brutalized, falsely arrested or otherwise mistreated protesters, or those who were in the vicinity of the protests.

The report recommended a new oversight commission for the NYPD, tightening officer discipline, and other changes to other policies and laws.

With Joan Gralla

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