NEW YORK (AP) — New York City’s mayor on Monday defended the use of police to enforce social distancing, rejecting calls from watchdogs to end the practice after an officer with a costly history of alleged misconduct was caught on video pulling a stun gun on a man and violently taking him to the ground.
Mayor Bill de Blasio called Saturday’s confrontation in Manhattan’s East Village “very troubling” and “absolutely unacceptable,” but contended it was an outlier among “tens of thousands of interactions between police officers and civilians over the last weeks that went very well.”
The officer, Francisco Garcia, was stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty pending an internal investigation. Over the years, he’s been named as a defendant in six lawsuits that the city settled for a total of $182,500, according to court records and a Legal Aid Society database.
In a similar case, Garcia and other officers allegedly threw a man to the ground and then punched and kicked him. In another, Garcia was accused of throwing a woman against a metal grate and onto a sidewalk and using a homophobic slur after she asked for his badge number.
The police department assigned 1,000 officers to social distancing patrols as New Yorkers ventured outside to enjoy the warmest weekend of a spring clouded by the coronavirus pandemic. They’ll also be part of a new effort to distribute 7.5 million protective face masks over the next few weeks.
“You can’t do effective enforcement without the NYPD and the NYPD is more than up to the job,” de Blasio said.
Bystander video showed Garcia – in plainclothes but no mask — slapping 33-year-old Donni Wright in the face, punching him in the shoulder and dragging him to a sidewalk after leveling him in a crosswalk near a public housing complex.
Police spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell said Wright “took a fighting stance against the officer” when he was ordered to disperse. Minutes before that, officers arrested two other people on the same block for allegedly failing to comply when asked to move along.
Officers recovered a stun gun that may have belonged to one of the people, a small amount of marijuana and close to $3,000 in cash, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said.
“Exactly what was going on there is still somewhat under investigation,” he said.
Joo-Hyun Kang, of the police watchdog Communities United for Police Reform, said the clash made clear: “Public health professionals and community organizations, not the NYPD, should be responsible for educating New Yorkers about the importance of social distancing and creating new norms.”
Tina Luongo, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, said the city needs to “seriously reconsider social distancing enforcement that leads to escalations involving the use of tasers and violent assaults.”
The city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, said he’s been pressing the police department for weeks to provide day-by-day demographic data on social distancing summonses and arrests.
“We want to see the NYPD not be overly used to enforce this,” Williams said. “This is about public health and public safety. That cannot be equated with overpolicing because we see what happened.”
Even the head of the city’s largest police union said officers “should get out of the social distancing enforcement business altogether.”
Pat Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, called the situation “untenable” and blamed city leaders for “vague guidelines and mixed messages, leaving the cops on the street corners to fend for ourselves.”
“Nobody has a right to interfere with a police action. But now that the inevitable backlash has arrived, they are once again throwing us under the bus,” Lynch said in a statement after de Blasio spoke Monday.
Wright was arrested on charges including assault on a police officer and resisting arrest, but the Manhattan district attorney’s office said it would defer prosecution pending further investigation.
Despite the latest fiasco, de Blasio said the police department has made great strides overall in reducing its use of force in recent years by training all of its officers in de-escalation techniques and by building stronger relationships within communities.
“What you saw there is more and more of a rarity,” de Blasio said at a news conference Monday. “We have work to do, unquestionably, but the progress is very clear to see.”