As thousands of New Yorkers hit city parks this weekend to revel in warm spring weather, footage of the violent arrest of three people, two of whom were accused of not following social distancing guidelines, has sparked an internal NYPD investigation.
The arrests, captured on cell phone video and on security cameras, took place in the East Village late Saturday afternoon, the New York Daily News reports. Footage of the arrests shows multiple plainclothes officers aggressively confronting two people, 31-year-old Shakiem Brunson and 22-year-old Ashley Serrano outside a deli. As officers converge on the pair, bystanders shout in protest, telling the police Brunson and Serrano weren’t doing anything wrong.
Then one officer, identified as Officer Francisco Garcia, approaches a bystander, Donni Wright.
“Move the fuck back,” he shouts multiple times as he approaches Wright, drawing his stun gun. “Don’t flex.” Garcia then lunges at Wright, delivering blows to his face as passersby scream at the arrest.
“Nothing was going on, nothing provoked the cop. He just got up, pulled his Taser out,’” Daquan Owens, who recorded and posted the footage online, told the Daily News. “The cop, I guess he was frustrated and took his frustration out on the guy.”
But the story laid out by an NYPD spokesperson stands in stark contrast to the one told by the witness who recorded the incident. According to the department, the confrontation began because social distancing measures—maintaining six feet of distance from others—were not being followed.
From the Daily News:
In a statement, NYPD spokesperson Sergeant Mary Frances O’Donnell said “a group was observed” on the corner “in violation of social distancing orders.” The statement said that when officers approached the group to order them to disperse, “they observed a bag of alleged marijuana in plain view.” Another video shows security camera footage of the incident starting before police arrived.
But surveillance footage of the initial arrest appears to corroborate Owens’ account, which is that there wasn’t a whole lot going on before officers arrived on the scene. In the video, Brunson, in a white shirt, can be seen sitting on a crate outside a deli when Serrano approaches on the other side of the sidewalk. She stands there for a moment, waiting for several pedestrians to pass by, before walking to Brunson’s side. As soon as she steps beside him, the officers immediately converge on the pair, and she appears to try to stand in between the cops and Brunson before she’s spun away and arrested by Officer Garcia. Two cops then grapple with Brunson.
As the officers arrest the pair, Garcia seems to spot Wright further down the street, walking toward him while yelling at him to get back.
According to Gothamist, O’Donnell’s statement says Wright “took a fighting stance against the officer.” Owens’ video shows Wright with both hands by his side, one of his fists clenched, shortly before Officer Garcia lunges at him. He doesn’t seem to make any major movements toward the officer.
“This is our neighborhood for over 35 years,” Wright’s mother, Donna, told Gothamist. “Donni happens to be an employee with [New York City Housing Authority] for ten years. He doesn’t have a criminal record. He was going to the store after work, and the officer punched him to the floor.”
Multiple public officials who viewed the video, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, said they were disturbed by what they saw.
“Saw the video from the Lower East Side and was really disturbed by it,” he wrote in a statement. “The behavior I saw in that video is simply not acceptable.”
City Councilmember Carlina Rivera and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein called for an investigation into the incident after the video began circulating on social media.
“Regardless of what transpired before the video, what is the justification for the rage?” Rivera, the neighborhood’s representative, tweeted. “Where’s the professionalism and de-escalation tactics we should expect? We will hold these officers accountable.”
Rivera followed up and said she’d also be calling for a breakdown of reporting on social distance arrests and summons by race and neighborhood.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD cop, also called for a full investigation of Saturday’s arrests, which resulted in a bevy of charges for all involved.
“I don’t know how we went from social distancing to marijuana arrest to a full takedown of that level,” Adams said in an online press conference.
On Sunday, the NYPD confirmed they were launching an internal investigation into the incident. Both Brunson and Serrano were charged with resisting arrest, weapon possession and disorderly conduct, reports the Daily News. Brunson had an additional charge of marijuana possession.
Wright, the bystander, was charged with assaulting an officer, menacing, resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration and disorderly conduct, reports Gothamist.
As of Sunday night, all three were awaiting arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court, writes the Daily News.
The incident highlights perceived discrepancies in how law enforcement has tried to maintain social distancing guidelines around the country. Many online compared video of the arrest to photos taken in city parks, seemingly filled to the brim with (mostly white) spring revelers. (For what it’s worth, de Blasio didn’t seem bothered by the images, saying that most people were following social distancing guidelines, according to CNN.)
The Daily News reports that Garcia was placed on administrative duty and stripped of his gun and badge. A Daily News search of the online database CAPstat, which tracks legal actions filed against the NYPD, revealed that Garcia has been targeted in multiple lawsuits resulting in settlements, including one claim that settled for $120,000 in 2016.
In a written statement addressing the incident, Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, noted that the officers, allegedly trying to enforce public safety measures, ended up aggressively violating them:
“What is equally disturbing is that some of these officers—who were ostensibly enforcing social distancing laws—were in violation of those same very laws themselves by not wearing protecting masks, endangering the lives of all New Yorkers around them.”