Police enforcement of physical distancing measures exposes old wounds in New York

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Donna Wright gets anxious at the mere mention of the video showing her son being slapped and dragged on the ground during a violent confrontation with police.

“Each and every time I think about it, it sends chills down my spine to think that [a] human being would be so brutal to another human being,” Wright said.

On May 2, Wright’s 33-year-old son Donni was in the East Village neighbourhood of Manhattan watching officers arrest two people for not abiding by social distancing guidelines. The video shows one officer breaking away from the arrest to confront a group of bystanders, including Wright.

Police say Donni Wright took a fighting stance. The video shows the officer punch and slap Wright, take him down, then pin his head and neck to the ground with his knee.

“I’m not one to bash cops, but I’m so sick of it. I wouldn’t want any mother to go through what I’m feeling,” said Wright, who said her son has been in constant physical and emotional pain since the incident.

Donni Wright was charged with a number of offences, including assaulting a police officer, obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest.

New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, left, has defended his force’s handling of enforcement of physical distancing guidelines. (Brendan McDermind/Reuters)

The viral video has become a flashpoint in a debate over how the New York Police Department enforces physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has led to protests in the streets.

It is also one of a handful of recent incidents that have reignited anger over how New York police deals with minority communities, and sparked local and state investigations into whether certain groups are being unfairly targeted for enforcement of physical distancing guidelines. 

When enforcement turns violent

Another video shows a mother being arrested in front of her child for improperly wearing a mask on the subway.

A man was violently taken down as police broke up a cookout in a predominantly African American and Hispanic neighbourhood. In another incident in the same area, a man was knocked unconscious as police tried to break up a group of people who were clustered together.

Critics of the police department and public officials say the incidents show a racial disparity in how social distancing guidelines are enforced across the city.

“This is an epidemic of police brutality during this horrible pandemic,” said Wright’s lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, who has called for a criminal investigation into the officer.

Of all U.S. cities, New York has been the hardest hit during the pandemic, with close to 190,000 novel coronavirus cases and more than 20,000 confirmed and probable deaths from COVID-19.

To deter the spread of the virus, city residents are required to keep about two metres away from others and not gather in groups.

“There’s nothing about black and brown people that is inherently making us not follow social distancing,” said Anthonine Pierre, a community organizer and member of Communities United for Police Reform. She called the police’s approach “targeted harassment.”

NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea has pushed back strongly on the accusation that the recent incidents are emblematic of “racist policing,” pointing out that the majority of the force is made up of minorities and that prior to the pandemic, arrests and summonses were at or near historic lows.

“I, as the police commissioner, will not stand for excessive force, nor will I stand and defend indefensible actions,” Shea said during a recent press conference. “But I will also not have my police department called a racist police department.”

‘A tale of two cities’

Facing increased public pressure over the viral videos, the NYPD released statistics around its enforcement of physical distancing. The numbers show that between March 16 and May 5, police issued 374 summonses (equivalent to a ticket) related to physical distancing. Of those, 304 went to black and Hispanic men and women.

Shea defended the numbers, saying they arose from a small number of incidents, but admitted that work needs to be done to improve the relationship between police and minority communities.

“We have to make sure we’re impartial in how we enforce the law. I’m going to take a look at every incident and call it as I see it,” Shea said.

WATCH | Donni Wright viral video:

This video from May 2 shows a New York police officer violently arresting a man after a confrontation over physical distancing guidelines. 2:18

Mayor Bill de Blasio described the number of summonses as “extraordinarily low” for a city of 8.6 million across six weeks but also said, “we don’t accept disparity. When we see disparity, we’re going to address it.”

In the New York borough of Brooklyn, the district attorney’s office said that between March 17 and May 4, there were 40 arrests for violations of physical distancing guidelines — 35 of them involve blacks, four of them were Hispanics and one person arrested was white. All the arrests took place in majority-minority neighbourhoods, areas with a population density comparable to other parts of the borough. 

“It does show this is definitely a tale of two cities,” said Rev. Kevin McCall, a community activist who led a protest caravan through Brooklyn after the Donni Wright arrest. 

The recent incidents and the disparities in the statistics have sparked investigations by the state’s attorney general and the Brooklyn district attorney, who has said he won’t prosecute low-level infractions during the pandemic.

History of distrust

There is a long history of distrust between the police and minority communities in New York, most recently surrounding the force’s stop-and-frisk policy. The warrantless police stops, which peaked in 2011 but have since declined after legal action, were shown to predominantly target African Americans and Hispanics, the majority of whom turned out not to be guilty of a crime.

Pierre said the recent statistics correlate with the disproportionate enforcement that has happened in black communities outside of the COVID-19 crisis, as demonstrated by the stop-and-frisk numbers.

“A pandemic makes everything that was already here worse, so the stop-and-frisk that was already happening on March 1 is just being exacerbated now deep into COVID-19,” Pierre said.

The debate over enforcement had led to rare consensus between the police union and police accountability groups: that the NYPD should not be in the business of enforcing physical distancing.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, second from right, recently announced that the NYPD will no longer hand out tickets to those who are not wearing masks, and will instead focus on breaking up gatherings of six or more people. (Bryan Thomas/Getty Images)

Mayor de Blasio, who has often been at odds with police, has tried to balance being critical of individual incidents while defending the force as a whole. He said he was disturbed by the Wright video.

On Friday, he announced new guidelines for enforcement. The NYPD will no longer hand out tickets to those who are not wearing masks. Instead, the force will focus on gatherings of six or more people. 

“We want to make this a positive approach. We do not want to revive the mistakes of the past,” the mayor said at his daily press conference.

A new approach

The city will also send out approximately 2,300 civilian ambassadors, from various city agencies and local community groups, to provide guidance on social distancing regulations and distribute masks at parks and other public spaces.

“The NYPD will give people reminders and give people face coverings, but NYPD’s best efforts would be dealing with the things that are real danger, which is the larger gatherings,” de Blasio said.

In a memo to the force on Friday, Police Commissioner Shea wrote, “we will no longer issue summonses or make arrests for infractions related to face coverings — absent of a crime or other violation being committed.”

“This change is essential, as the men and women of the NYPD are committed to deepening the trust and partnership that they’ve worked so hard to build,” an NYPD spokesperson told CBC News. 

Pierre welcomed the new measures, saying, “people are already scared without having to be approached by somebody with a gun.” 

Calls for justice

The new measures don’t change the situation for Donna Wright, who wants to see the officer involved in her son’s arrest fired.

“He should go to jail, he should be prosecuted, he should be fired, because it just was bad,” Wright said. 

The Manhattan district attorney has said the charges against Wright have been deferred pending further investigation.

Rev. McCall said more protests are planned in the streets of Brooklyn to keep the issue front and centre during the pandemic. He noted that in many of the viral videos, the police officers themselves aren’t even wearing face coverings.

“Even in this pandemic, black, brown and Latinos got the raw end of the stick. We’re dealing with the police department not even respecting us by wearing a mask.”

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