Gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, New York City is experiencing the largest volume of emergency phone calls in its history. During a single day last month, the New York Times reported, dispatchers answered around seven thousand calls, even more than on September 11, 2001. With more than a hundred thousand cases of COVID-19 confirmed in the city, there is overwhelming demand for emergency medical workers — but not for law enforcement officers. New York City police are actually receiving fewer dispatches now than they were prior to the crisis.
After the city’s emergency social distancing measures took effect last month, reports of the seven most serious crimes, including robbery and assault, went down substantially. Still, in the weeks since the shutdown, New York City police officers have repeatedly restrained, arrested, and even assaulted New Yorkers attempting to navigate the tense atmosphere of enforced social distancing in the city.
New York cops aren’t helping fight the worst outbreak of coronavirus in the world — they’re making things far worse.
Brutality as Usual
Mayor Bill de Blasio has instructed the NYPD to ensure that all people maintain six feet of personal distance when moving about in public, creating a force of seven hundred designated patrol officers to enforce the new coronavirus rules. Now, New Yorkers who cannot self-isolate, including many essential workers, regularly encounter groups of anxious and undertrained patrol officers who are eager to enforce social distancing but, in many cases, unwilling to do so without resorting to violence and abuse.
On the night of Friday, March 27, after police pepper-sprayed a gathering in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, three residents became the first people to be arrested for failing to comply with the city’s social distancing order. (They were all charged with obstructing governmental administration, unlawful assembly, and disorderly conduct.)
The Intercept reported that one of those arrested, a thirty-seven-year-old woman, was then transported to Brooklyn central booking, where she was held for thirty-six hours in a cell with more than twenty other women, with no soap available. (At the time, the infection rate among people incarcerated in New York City was 5.1 percent. It is now a staggering 7.8 percent.)
Two weeks later, on Friday, April 10, a group of NYPD officers approached a boy they believed to be “about eight years of age” as he rode the subway in Harlem. After accusing him of illegally selling candy and snack foods to other passengers, the officers dragged the boy off the train. A witness’s video shows the officers, most of them unmasked, forming a tight circle around the boy on the subway platform. One officer strips the boy’s jacket from his body. Another officer kicks a shopping bag filled with the boy’s snacks in the direction of the open tracks.
As he cries, the police begin to haul the boy away. Throughout it all, a woman stands near the officers, repeatedly insisting that the boy is her son. (The NYPD issued a terse statement about the incident, reporting that officers later called the Administration for Children’s Services and issued a summons for disorderly conduct to the boy’s stepfather, who was also present.)
The same day, a group of seven patrol officers forcibly removed a man from the 149th Street–Grand Concourse station in handcuffs as bystanders shouted in his defense. According to a witness at the scene, the officers became offended after the man pointed out that there was no room on the crowded train platform for commuters to maintain six feet of distance as instructed.
Another video, captured a few days earlier, shows police in the Bronx arguing with bystanders as several officers stand above a prostrate man with cuffs on his wrists. None of the officers wear masks or gloves. One officer punches a woman in her face, sending her falling backward into a group of onlookers. Finally, an onlooker approaches the scuffle and, after slapping one officer in the side of the head, flees down the street. Police later arrested thirty-one-year-old Nelson Jimenez, suspecting him of being the onlooker in the video; Jimenez was charged with assault on a police officer, disorderly conduct, and obstructing government administration.
De Blasio described the incident as a “cowardly, despicable attack on our New York’s Finest,” and thanked the NYPD for “going above and beyond the call of duty… in this crisis.” The NYPD Sergeants Benevolent Association later tweeted a heavily edited video clip of the incident, with the message: “COVID-19 plagues thousands but the same scumbags continue to roam the streets.”
Presumably, they meant Jimenez — not the six uniformed police officers who the video shows repeatedly pushing, shoving, and punching bystanders who come near them, even as multiple onlookers audibly beg the patrolmen not to put their bare hands on members of the crowd that had gathered, horrified, to watch.
Send Them Home
Today, 17.3 percent of the force’s total capacity have called out sick, with 2,161 officers testing positive for the coronavirus. Still, the NYPD continues to maintain a heavy police presence in the city, despite the significant drop in crime rates during the coronavirus shutdown. Healthy officers — that is, officers not exhibiting symptoms like fever — continue to patrol the streets and subways, and police commissioner Dermot Shea has prepared plans to implement twelve-hour shifts to compensate for understaffing.
New York City police have played an active role in shaping the city’s coronavirus response from the beginning, exaggerating the need for proactive policing and sometimes frustrating larger crisis mitigation efforts. In March, for example, de Blasio scuttled a plan to close streets to car traffic, creating space for pedestrians to maintain social distance, after the NYPD insisted on the need for an intensive police presence in each of the proposed pedestrian areas.
When the program was piloted, as many as eighty cops were deployed to patrol only thirty blocks — about three uniformed police per intersection. An anonymous source in city government told StreetsBlogNYC that far more streets would have been opened to pedestrians if not for the intensive policing requirement. The source added, “This didn’t need to be such a big deal. Just treat it like a street fair — when you’re lucky if a cop shows up at the start and the end to move the sawhorse. I have no idea why they thought they needed so many cops to police this.”
While they’ve stressed the need for increased patrols, New York City police officers have so far refused to take on necessary emergency duties like assisting overstressed mortuary workers. Homicide detectives continue to report to the scene of every at-home death, but rank-and-file officers recently declined a request from the police brass to form voluntary “dead on arrival” teams (eligible for up to sixty hours of overtime pay) to help collect the city’s dead — a vitally important duty that has already been taken on by police officers in similarly hard-hit cities like Guayaquil, Ecuador.
As of this writing, more than ten thousand New Yorkers have died of COVID-19, a figure that likely omits many victims of the disease who died at home. New York City officials recently told ProPublica that the five boroughs have seen about two hundred at-home deaths every day during this crisis.
As affluent New York neighborhoods grow accustomed to empty streets and closed businesses, the residents of poorer neighborhoods are growing strained under the exaggerated police presence.
“If I just looked out my window, the only semblance of government that I would see would be the NYPD,” East Harlem community organizer Josmar Trujillo told the Intercept recently. “You don’t see Health Department officials out here. You don’t see people sanitizing public spaces like they did in China. It’s a ghost town except for the police.”
The NYPD continues to harp on the risk of crime connected to the coronavirus crisis — for example, by recently making the dubious claim that commercial burglaries are spiking during the shutdown. But in fact, it’s not at all clear that heavy police patrolling lowers the crime rate in New York City.
Currently, nearly one in six NYPD officers is out sick. The last time the NYPD operated at a similarly reduced capacity was in 2014, when officers staged a “virtual work stoppage” to protest city leaders’ perceived sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement. During this time, arrests fell by 66 percent, with traffic tickets and minor citations falling by 94 percent.
The protesting officers aimed to give leaders like Bill de Blasio a taste of a city without law enforcement — and it worked, though not in the way they intended.
In 2017, two political scientists analyzed years of NYPD CompStat data to determine that, even according to the police department’s own metrics, crime actually went down and public safety conditions improved during the officers’ 2014 work slowdown. Perhaps, the authors concluded, sustained over-policing generates resentment and desperation that may lead to elevated crime rates.
The coronavirus has spread disproportionately quickly among people whose lives are entangled in the criminal justice system — notably those held in prisons and jails, but also corrections officers and police. With infection rates skyrocketing among both prisoners and police in New York City, it is clear that to be arrested, or perhaps even to interact with a police officer on the street, poses a severe risk to health and safety.
Instead of continuing to indulge cops’ desire to police the crisis, New York City leaders need to implement plans to dramatically scale down the police presence in the city, including by suspending patrols and reducing the NYPD’s capacity through mandatory furloughs for cops whose normal duties are unnecessary or who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Our leaders must take immediate steps to minimize the threat of transmission posed by unnecessary police contact and arrest. In New York City, this will require getting cops off the streets.