NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea delivered an emotional defense of his department’s racially biased social distancing enforcement on Wednesday, accusing critics of recent arrests of promoting an anti-cop agenda that puts officers in danger.
“I will push back strongly on any notion that this is business as usual for the NYPD or that this is quote unquote racist policing. I think this could not be anything further from the truth,” Shea bristled on Wednesday, during an angry tirade that extended for five minutes during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s morning coronavirus press conference.
“Before it’s turned into an agenda for a press conference, it is dangerous,” Shea warned, as he ticked off the names of NYPD officers killed or threatened in the line of duty. “In the last week, we have had death threats on police officers in New York City and their families over ten second videos where police officers are dealing with individuals who quite frankly don’t just fight with the police department, they fight with everyone.”
“They have open gun cases,” he continued. “They are gang members. And we expect our police officers to do the best they can.”
There is little evidence that recent targets of police violence are primarily criminals. The man who was beaten by an NYPD officer while observing a social distancing arrest on the Lower East Side is a NYCHA groundskeeper with no criminal record — though the officer who arrested him, Francisco Garcia, has his own lengthy history of alleged brutality and bigotry. Garcia was placed on modified duty, but has still not been fired as of Wednesday, Shea said.
The police commissioner offered his own rationalization of recent data showing the NYPD has overwhelmingly targeted black and Hispanic New Yorkers for social distancing summonses and arrests.
“Are they mostly to minority members of this city? Yes, they are. And I think you knew that answer before you asked the question,” he said. “But no one is talking about the disparity of the last 10 homicide victims in New York City.”
It’s unclear how the demographic breakdown of homicide victims relates to the NYPD’s decision to primarily police social distancing offenses in neighborhoods of color.
“Disparities exist in every facet of life, not just in New York City, but in this country, and it’s rooted in much deeper issues than the New York City Police Department,” Shea added.
Shortly after Shea’s comments, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams held a virtual press conference to raise concerns about the NYPD’s unequal enforcement of social distancing rules.
“Any threats against the lives of New York’s Finest are completely reprehensible and unacceptable,” said Adams, himself a former police officer. “But we also have to be clear-eyed and honest about a pattern of enforcement that [has] overwhelmingly targeted people of color, and which is consistent with a history of racially-disparate policies like the unjust application of stop and frisk.”
The department still hasn’t released data showing the number of individuals arrested as a result of social distancing stops. Figures from local district attorneys show those arrested have been almost exclusively black and Hispanic men.
For his part, Mayor Bill de Blasio reiterated previous comments Wednesday that the department has exercised restraint during the public health crisis, thanking Shea for his impassioned speech.
“I’m very happy that you shared your feelings with everyone and put everything in perspective there,” the mayor said. “You laid out the big picture that people needed to hear.”