Gotham Gazette

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A Month After Historic Curfew, Many Unanswered Questions About How City Policed Protests, Looting

De Blasio Shea policing NYC

Mayor de Blasio & NYPD Commissioner Shea (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The first day of the most recent chapter of protests against police brutality and racism in New York City was Thursday, May 28, the same night 500 National Guard troops were being deployed to Minneapolis, where rioters had set fire to a police station in the quarter where George Floyd was killed three days earlier.

Over the next three nights, violence -- toward police and the burning of NYPD vehicles, by aggressive officers toward protesters, and in the form of rampant looting -- became a fixture of nighttime hours in pockets of New York City, leading to many questions about policing tactics and the leadership of Mayor Bill de Blasio. On Monday, June 1, Governor Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio, like their counterparts in other states, instituted a curfew in the city for the first time since World War II.

As the protests were unfolding the mayor and his police department seemed unable to stop what destruction was taking place around them. At the same time, there were frequent acts of brutal policing, which quickly became the subject of ongoing investigations by the New York Attorney General, New York City Department of Investigation along with the Corporation Counsel, and the city’s Civil Complaint Review Board.

Throughout those first nights and lasting for about a week into early June, de Blasio was asked repeatedly by members of the media for the city’s enforcement strategies around the large crowds and marches, looting, and the curfew, to which he responded with answers that were often vague or inconsistent with reality.

Weeks later, the de Blasio administration won't say what specific instructions, if any, were given to commands or officers on how to police the demonstrations, the looting, or the curfew. Despite repeated requests by Gotham Gazette, spokespeople for the mayor and NYPD did not provide information about the size and location of police deployments or details on crowd control and looting prevention and enforcement strategies.

Yet some limited pieces of this information formed key elements of the administration's narrative used to justify the historic, six-night curfew that many believed escalated tensions between protesters and police, and was the basis for numerous, seemingly indiscriminate arrests, often with major displays of force.

Curfew, Kettling and Chain of Command
"The curfew is to help us separate the peaceful protesters, which are the overwhelming majority, from people who are looking to exploit the moment by looting, et cetera," Cuomo said on CNN a few hours before the curfew went into effect on Monday, June 1.

Around the same time de Blasio was on NY1 saying, "the curfew is very clear that we will not tolerate any criminal activity, anybody breaking into stores, looting, smashing store windows. And that will give the officers, from 11 p.m. on, the ability to say to anyone on the street, 'You have to leave immediately.'"

What tactical decisions were made up to that point and why the NYPD -- a police force of 36,000 uniformed officers with a great deal of experience policing large crowds and violent crime -- needed the extra help remain unclear.

By the time the first looting took place on the fourth night of protest, viral images had already painted a complex picture of a heavy-handed NYPD response to marchers objecting to police violence and seeking a broad withdrawal of police, and of mayhem, including violence against cops and police vehicles.

There were several scenes, often captured on social and news media, of officers using rough tactics and displays of force apparently without enforcing laws. On Friday, May 29, someone in a quickly-moving NYPD car was caught on video opening the passenger-side door to hit a protester. That Saturday, a police helicopter hovered low above nonviolent marchers, whipping up dust and debris, the marchers shielding their eyes. There were reports of cops corralling and charging peaceful demonstrators with batons and pepper spray, sending protesters to the hospital, and intimidating journalists.

Reports of alleged police abuse from 80 incidents, from May 28 through May 30, were filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), an oversight agency charged with investigating police misconduct. In the weeks of protest, over 200 incidents have been reported to the board.

After the chaotic second night (Friday, May 29), both de Blasio and Cuomo said there would be “independent” investigations of how the protests were policed. Cuomo asked Attorney General Letitia James to conduct the state review. De Blasio appointed Department of Investigation Commissioner Margaret Garnett and Jim Johnson, the administration's top lawyer as corporation counsel, to lead an investigation into conduct "by all players" and "to look at where accountability needs to be." The mayor also said the NYPD would conduct its usual internal reviews.

"It’s the NYPD’s obligation to find the best possible way to keep peace, to protect everyone, to avoid anything that allows further violence to occur,” de Blasio said at a May 30 press briefing, “but that means also recognizing that any aggressive act towards a peaceful protestor sends exactly the wrong message."

"At the same time, we saw acts of violence from protestors that have nothing to do with the tradition of peaceful, democratic protest," he added.

"This is New York City and we handle hundreds if not thousands of protests of all different sizes, shapes and forms," NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said in testimony to James weeks later, on June 22. "Some protests can take place with very minimal officers. Obviously the larger protests will require a different response in planning."

"I can tell you what we learned almost immediately from the Thursday night protest and continuing right into Friday and Saturday, that these protests were different," Shea said of March 28-30, the first three nights. "The main difference was, these were violent."

The NYPD says officers arrested over 2,500 people during the protests, "but the number is fluid and more details should be available at a later time," wrote NYPD spokesperson Detective Sophia Mason in an email. More than a fifth of those -- 631, according to preliminary NYPD figures -- were for burglaries, a vast majority of which occured on Sunday, May 31, and Monday, June 1, wrote Mason. According to information provided to Gotham Gazette by the city's five district attorney offices, about 1,090 people were arrested in the first week of the protests, which included the looting.

Throughout that first week of protests, before and after the initial June 1 curfew, de Blasio and Shea maintained that they wanted foremost to protect the rights of peaceful protesters. The two have insisted that the department's "restraint" and ability to "deescalate" was the overriding characteristic of its approach, though facts on the ground belied those statements.

"We've tried to be as flexible as possible in allowing people to demonstrate, respecting their first amendment rights...and also having respect for people's property and trying to maintain order," Shea said in the testimony to Attorney General James, who asked what directions were given to officers around enforcing the curfew. "So that was the instructions, it's not very unlike instructions that are given at any other protest." Shea provided no specifics.

The well-documented tactic of "kettling" -- where lines of police barricade and confine groups of protesters -- was common before and after the curfew was imposed. On many occasions, marchers were charged with batons and riot shields, but Shea indicated in his testimony to James that it is not a practice he’s been familiar with or ordered.

"I was never familiar with it until about two weeks ago and I’ve heard it more in two weeks than I’ve ever heard it,” Shea told James of “kettling.” “I believe I know what they’re referring to—it’s corralling, if you will, protesters. But it’s not something that to my knowledge exists in our policies.”

At least when the curfew was in effect decision-making was largely decentralized, according to NYPD leaders. "Discretion is given to all commanders on the scene. Decisions are not made from 1 Police Plaza,” said Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the NYPD's highest ranking uniformed officer, in an interview with Gothamist published June 11. “They're made from the commanders on the scene based on what they're seeing."

That discretion clearly played out in the streets, with different approaches to policing and different outcomes. In some cases peaceful protesters were dispersed and in many other instances their counterparts in other marchers were subject to kettling and rough arrests.

"If officers say now is the point we need you to go home, it's time to go home," de Blasio said to reporters at a June 4 press conference when describing broad parameters of how protests amid curfew were being policed. "I can say this in many places in the good old USA, a curfew at 8 p.m., that would be the whole, this the end of discussion right there,” he said later in the briefing. “It is the nature of New York City and the restraint shown by the NYPD that we're trying to give people extra space if they do it the right way, if they respect the instructions of the NYPD and do no violence, no harm, don't plan any violence."

Policing experts and former law enforcement officials disagree over what they believe was going on at the command level.

"Because of all of the looting and violence that was seen throughout the country, New York City and the Police Department put forth a 'full enforcement' type of response," said Dr. Alfred Titus, Jr., an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice with 23 years as an NYPD homicide and hostage detective based in Harlem and Washington Heights. "Which means that for any slight amount of violence the police were instructed to move in, apprehend people, stop the violence, protect property," he told Gotham Gazette, based on his observations.

"That was where a lot of the conflict came," Titus said.

Brian Higgins, the former Chief of Police in Bergen County, New Jersey, who also teaches at John Jay and consults with municipalities on crowd management, thought cops appeared to have their hands tied. "It's obvious there was a conscious decision to change tactics," he said of the NYPD's typical approach to crowd control. "It was most likely that the New York City Police Department was told to, for lack of a better term, stand down."

On the first night of looting, which led to the curfew, police allowed hundreds of peaceful marchers to cross Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn into Lower Manhattan, toward a site where, the night before several police cars were set on fire in the later hours. In moments like that, Higgins wondered why police didn't intervene in anticipation.

"It appears as if the normal protocols used by the New York City Police Department were not allowed to be used at night," he said. "And a crowd can be a very dangerous situation. It's almost like playing with fire."

In the first week of protest, from March 28 to June 4, 450 storefronts were damaged, according to the mayor's office, and everything from bridges to city buses were vandalized. Thirteen police cars were set ablaze and "were a total loss," according to an NYPD spokesperson. Another 269 were graffitied, had windows broken or tires slashed. The damages cost taxpayers an estimated $795,700 and 22 vehicles remain out of service, the spokesperson said in late June. (A spokesperson for de Blasio said June 29 that the mayor's office could not provide a cost estimate for the total damage, either to businesses or to city property, just before a new city budget was due.)

Thursday, May 28 through Saturday, May 30 - The First Three Nights
"I want to see a light touch because people are undeniably angry for a reason," de Blasio said of policing protests on WNYC radio on the morning of Friday, May 29, after the first night of protests. But "attacking a police officer is unacceptable," he said in response to a question about reported police injuries. A review of the police reports for May 28 say that violence against officers -- including a protester who allegedly threw a trash can into a crowd, knocking a cop unconscious -- occurred as they were taking part in "crowd control" or dispersal, at times while they were arresting other protesters.

On the morning of May 29, Shea said there would be a heavy police presence in response to the prior night: "The NYPD is out here in force tonight. We will have thousands of officers deployed throughout New York City."

That night saw the first serious clashes between protesters and police, with NYPD vehicles set ablaze and city buses graffitied, and dozens of arrests were made.

Protests in Manhattan were "overwhelmingly peaceful," Shea said the next morning. Only 11 arrests were made in the borough, according to the district attorney's office.

But in Brooklyn, where police estimated roughly 3,000 demonstrators had gathered in protest, cops beat and pepper-sprayed protesters, and protesters chased and burned police vehicles. There remain unanswered questions as to why NYPD officers on the scene moved to pen in and disperse protesters, and the extent to which objects were thrown at police officers, which NYPD leaders said instigated the crackdown.

The next morning, on Saturday May 30, de Blasio said the city would change its approach to the protests. "We are working as we speak today to make sure that the protests in the days to come will be as peaceful as humanly possible, that there will be different protocols and approaches to ensure the right to protest is honored and that everyone can do so in a peaceful manner," he told reporters about his dissatisfaction with some of the tactics used on nonviolent marchers.

"We practice de-escalation but it is very difficult to practice de-escalation when you’re having a brick thrown at you, at your head," Shea said Saturday morning, striking a somewhat different tone from the mayor. "We have countless, and that is accurate, countless officers -- at this point still tallying how many were injured from last night -- in the emergency room as we speak."

In his sworn testimony to the Attorney General a few weeks later, Shea said that nearly 400 officers were injured during protests, of which 65 percent (meaning 260 officers) required treatment at a hospital. According to a police spokesperson, 280 officers had to be treated at a hospital and six were admitted for injuries from the protests.

"The NYPD felt like they were under attack," said Dr. Ted Hamm, the chair of Journalism and New Media at St. Joseph's College, who has over a decade of experience covering protests in New York City, including at the 2004 Repubican National Convention, which featured somewhat similar mass arrests. "It seems like they took offense, they took this personally in very direct ways. And they decided, we're going to make lives difficult for these people who want to express an opinion that we don't like."

"A lot of what we saw was emotion-based,” Titus said of the overall atmosphere in the city and beyond. “The whole country was almost in outrage at one point."

On the third night of protest -- Saturday, March 30 -- in a hastily-scheduled late-night press conference outside the city’s Office of Emergency Management in Downtown Brooklyn, as protesters were igniting cop cars in Union Square, de Blasio told the public: "If you're out there to commit an act of violence, you're going to get arrested tonight." He urged people to go home -- "You have been heard," he said. Dozens of police vehicles were burned or damaged that night as New Yorkers who weren’t in the streets watched the scenes play out on social media and television. For almost two more full days, de Blasio and Shea maintained the NYPD was capable of policing the crowds without a curfew. 

De Blasio later said he spoke with Shea ”probably 50 times...literally" that Saturday, but what policing strategies they discussed is unknown.

Sunday, May 31 - Serious Looting
Looting began in downtown Manhattan the next night, Sunday May 31, after marchers crossed the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn and were splintered by police in Chinatown and funneled into the SoHo retail district. Arrest data provided by the Manhattan District Attorney's office shows a lot of the looting targeted expensive stores, though for some the dollar amount was not the point. That night WNYC reporter George Joseph tweeted a quote from a young man who had stolen bandaids from a pharmacy: "It’s the principle. It’s people higher than you, sitting in the chair watching + saying ‘wow look what they’re doing over one person’...We never had a voice, we’re gonna make one now."

The looting fed into a largely hollow narrative of "outside agitators," which had been spreading nationwide, echoed in statements made by politicians from the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis to President Donald Trump.

"I have been on this evening a thread, a text thread with mayors all over the country. They're all experiencing exactly the same thing," de Blasio said that night of May 31 on NY1. "But they're not from communities of color. They're often not from – not only not from the neighborhoods they're protesting in, they're not even from the city in some cases."

The mayor and NYPD have not provided evidence of a significant element of outside agitators, though they repeatedly made those claims in the initial days of protest. In Manhattan that Sunday and Monday, where some of the worst looting took place, of the 114 "live arrests" made, 14 were of people from outside the five boroughs, of which nine were from Long Island or the Hudson Valley, according to arrest data provided by the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. The remaining five were from New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

As the evening wore on, officers reportedly stood by as looters entered smashed stores in Lower Manhattan, though a total of 169 arrests were made in Manhattan that night. "Sunday, Monday, for thousands -- yes, I mean thousands -- of people running through the streets, looting, hitting stores, but you were there. You were making arrests, and you did a fantastic, fantastic job," said Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the highest ranking NYPD uniformed officer, in a video addressing officers and posted to Twitter for the public to see on June 12.

Monday, June 1 - The First Night of Curfew
The next afternoon  -- Monday June 1 -- Cuomo and de Blasio announced the city would be piloting an 11 p.m. curfew that evening (the mayor would later shift the curfew to 8 p.m. from June 2 through Monday, June 8, though he ended it Sunday, June 7 instead). Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Raleigh all instituted curfews the same night and at least 13 other cities had in the days before, according to a Gotham Gazette review of news reports and government announcements.

Property damage would continue the next two nights, notably in the Bronx on June 1, where 86 people were arrested on burglary and vandalism charges, according to a spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney.

Along with the curfew, de Blasio and Cuomo announced the NYPD would double the deployment and Cuomo later said there would be 8,000 uniformed officers on duty that Monday (June 1). "The additional officers will be deployed to areas where violence and property damage occurred during last night’s protests – specifically in lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn," read a joint press release announcing the curfew.

But the additional deployments failed to prevent the damage, and the mayor and police department were admonished by Cuomo the next day. "The police in New York City were not effective at doing their job last night. Period. They have to do a better job," the governor said on June 2, offering support from state police and 13,000 National Guard who were on stand-by. Cuomo later apologized to rank-and-file cops, saying he had been calling out NYPD leadership and the mayor.

"I believe, believed there was an issue of management, and deployment of the NYPD," he said the next day.

NYPD leaders said the sheer scale and tenacity of looters made vandalism and theft difficult to prevent. "They had a lot of people out here. We had a lot. They had more," Monahan said the night of June 2 on CNN, after the second night of looting had occurred June 1, this time under the 11 p.m. curfew.

"Someone would hit it," he said referring to storefronts being broken, "and then some would go in, or they'd circle back. It was cat and mouse all day. But we made 700 arrests. There were 2,000 out here."

No one from the mayor's office or NYPD has said why police weren't better able to prevent the wide-scale looting that took place in the Bronx and Manhattan and why, as Monahan reported, they were caught outnumbered by and struggled to keep up with looters.

Tuesday, June 2 through Sunday, June 7 - The Duration of the Curfew
Looting went on through the evening of Tuesday, June 2, when the curfew had been moved from 11 p.m. to 8 p.m. That night the city also banned traffic in Manhattan south of 96th Street, which Monahan said would help police maneuver more nibbly and keep up with looters.

"With the curfew at 8 o'clock, it gives us a reason, if we have a group that's starting to cause trouble that we can stop them all, and hopefully get them all off the street," Monahan said.

Tuesday, June 2, was the last night of widespread looting. Over the next several nights the police department selectively enforced the curfew, often kettling protesters before cracking down on them with batons and zip-tie cuffs or dispersing them.

Melees between police and peaceful marchers continued through Thursday, June 4 -- a week since the first night of protests. One of the largest and most severe mass arrests took place that evening in the Bronx, after peaceful marchers were kettled and then charged in Mott Haven around the 8 p.m. curfew. The Bronx District Attorney's office said there were 332 arrests that night, many for unlawful assembly. At the same time marches in Brooklyn were allowed to go on for hours after the curfew before facing kettling and some aggressive tactics, but with relatively milder outcomes compared to the Bronx. Shea defended the arrests, saying officers were acting on intelligence that suggested violence was being planned, and that enforcement was "executed nearly flawlessly,” but questions have been raised about the cited intelligence and preemptive tactics.

Police issued a total of 1,349 summonses for violating curfew, according to a statement issued by the NYPD after the curfew was lifted. About a third of them were issued to white people, while 42 percent were to individuals identified as “black or black Hispanic” by police.

The following Sunday, June 7, de Blasio repealed the curfew, one night ahead of schedule and after two nights where no protesters were arrested. Daily demonstrations throughout the city have continued relatively peacefully since, though there have been exceptions including clashes at the “Occupy City Hall” demonstration that developed in the lead-up to the budget deal reached by the mayor and City Council on June 30.

Many Unanswered Questions
Many unanswered questions remain about the tumultuous eight-night stretch, including to what extent the police department exacerbated and quelled tensions. What orders were given to officers and when are unknown, as is how many officers the NYPD deployed throughout the most damaging nights of looting and who or what can take credit for the peace that eventually settled.

"Cutting it back to 8 p.m., that helped a little but that wasn't the main thing that slowed down the violence," Dr. Titus, the former homicide detective, said of the curfew. "I believe it just kind of ran its course, more or less."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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