A New York City police officer who was caught on video Saturday pointing a stun gun at a man and violently taking him to the ground over an alleged social distancing violation has been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty pending an internal investigation.
Bystander video showed the plainclothes officer, who was not wearing a protective face 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 in Manhattan’s East Village.
“The behavior I saw in that video is simply not acceptable,” Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Sunday. He said earlier in the day that there will be a careful look into what happened.
Police spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell said Wright “took a fighting stance against the officer” when he was ordered to disperse and was arrested on charges including assault on a police officer and resisting arrest.
The charges have been deferred pending further investigation, a Manhattan District Attorney’s Office spokesperson said. A message seeking comment was left with the police officers’ union.
Wright’s arrest and that of two other people minutes earlier on the same block across from a public housing complex raised new questions about the police department’s use of force, the role of officers in enforcing social distancing measures and inconsistency in how they’re applied.
The manner of Wright’s arrest appeared to echo that of 20-year-old Fitzroy Gayle, who was seen on bystander video pleading for help as several officers wrestled him into submission on a Brooklyn sidewalk in early March.
Jennvine Wong, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project, said footage of the arrests Saturday stood in sharp contrast to photos and video including some tweeted out by the police department showing officers in crowded city parks handing out face masks and gently reminding people to stay 6 feet apart.
“This certainly isn’t the first time and this isn’t even the first time in this pandemic that we’ve seen evidence of discriminatory policing by the NYPD,” Wong said.
Carolyn Martinez-Class, of the police watchdog Communities United for Police Reform, said: “This incident illustrates why public health professions and community partners should be responsible for social distancing education and creating norms not police.”
The police department assigned 1,000 officers to social distancing patrols over the weekend as temperatures reached the high 70s (about 25 degrees Celsius). On Saturday, they issued 51 summonses, including 43 in city parks.
At a news conference Sunday, Shea said he was aware of just three arrests. Minutes before the confrontation with Wright, video from a nearby security camera showed officers used force in arresting a couple for allegedly failing to comply when asked to disperse.
O’Donnell said officers saw that one of them, a 31-year-old man, had a “bag of alleged marijuana in plain view.” The bystander video of Wright’s arrest showed the plainclothes officer, Francisco Garcia, helping take one of those people to the ground before turning his attention to Wright, who was moving toward the area of that arrest from about 10 to 15 feet away.
Garcia in a black T-shirt, jeans and a Yankees cap turned toward Wright and cursed at him to “(get) back right now,” according to the video. At the same time, the officer pulls up his Taser and points it toward Wright, possibly triggering the device.
Garcia continued toward Wright and eventually holstered his Taser. It wasn’t clear what Wright was doing because he wasn’t in the frame the entire time, though just before Garcia tackled him, he was seen stopping and standing in front of the officer with what appeared to be a clenched fist at his side.
“What you flexing for? Don’t flex,” Garcia said, before grabbing Wright and wrestling him to the ground, slapping and punching him in the process. The officer then took Wright’s arm and dragged him from the crosswalk where he landed back onto the sidewalk and pushed him onto his stomach.
The video then showed another officer stepping in and helping handcuff Wright. Kneeling on the top of Wright’s back or neck to keep him down, the plainclothes officer started jawing and cursing at bystanders. One of them yelled back: “he didn’t even do nothing”.