NYPD riot

A DIFFERENT KIND OF EDGY: In early May, one veteran cop said the biggest worry was enforcing social distancing in a time of coronvirus, explaining, 'Everyone's very on edge' about close contact with someone not wearing a mask. In the wake of the acrimony with protesters following the death of George Floyd, that officer said, 'We're coming out of this COVID crisis where we had the sense we were sort of winning, and we have to deal with this now. And during that, we were heroes.'

"I don't think anyone had seen anything like this except maybe the old-timers who were around for the Crown Heights riots," Mike the Cop said June 16, referring to the two-plus weeks of protests following the killing of George Floyd that featured sporadic violence on both sides of the picket line and several days of looting that had an impact on police tactics and attitudes that he believed wasn't fairly considered in the media coverage of the NYPD response. 

He was speaking during a respite from 14 days of 12-hour tours that on a couple of occasions stretched to 20 hours, during a period when cops' regular days off were canceled to maximize street presence for demonstrations whose size, nature and duration took the department by surprise.

"Nothing wears on people more than long hours of work" when they feel like they're under siege, said Mike, which is not his real name. "Morale was at the lowest I've ever seen it about two weeks ago. I think people have sort of adjusted to that we're dealing now with a more-hostile public."

That hostility, he said during an hour-plus phone interview, also showed itself in media coverage that he acknowledged was probably affected by the occasions in which cops got rough with elected officials and reporters who were in the middle of large crowds but doing nothing to foment violence. And their reaction to those actions, while seeming to ignore the violent protesters within the throngs, including those who threw Molotov cocktails at cops and torched police vehicles—a crowd of about 200 on University Place in Greenwich Village "enflamed at least 11 police vans and a few smaller cars"—added to officers' feeling of isolation," he said.

Created 'An Us vs. Them Attitude' 

"For a couple of days, there was an 'us vs. them' attitude in the Police Department: it's that either you're a protester or you're one of us," Mike said. "It's unfortunate—we're so used to having a 'peacetime' police force. This was the first time many of us went to hats and bats," using the police term for donning helmets and carrying nightsticks to handle protests.

And his sense was that top NYPD officials as well as patrol cops weren't prepared for the violence, and how widespread it was. He works in Manhattan, and he said it was not unusual to hear of a "full-blown riot" erupting out of a disturbance and being brought under control in a couple of hours without attracting media attention because "they happen in Brooklyn, they happen in The Bronx," in neighborhoods where few reporters live or work.  

"We didn't expect a widespread riot in New York City," Mike said, but to a large degree they got one, and the lack of planning for it made the skirmishes in much of the city besides Staten Island harder to get under control without resorting to force.

Referring to the Occupy Wall Street protests of a decade earlier, he said, "You had peaceful demonstrations. They were annoying in that they demanded a lot of time. but they weren't destructive the way this group was. That's what [NYPD leaders] were ready to deal with again. When they tried to develop their strategy, they just weren't ready to deal with something of this scale. I think they erred on the side of caution [by doing less to mobilize], which wound up leading to more violence."

The huge crowd that massed at the Barclays Center May 29—four days after Mr. Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis cop who pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes—was far beyond what the department had anticipated, he said.

Usual Rules Didn't Apply

Normally, the NYPD's Strategic Response Group will coordinate with protest leaders on who wants to be arrested. and it will be handled with a minimum of acrimony, Mike said. In this case, however, "there was a weird sort of breakdown in leadership" among the protesters. "What shook the [NYPD] leadership was that often there was no one to negotiate with."

Had there been the usual control in which a protest would be loud but orderly, he continued, "I think that would have alleviated a lot of the anxiety among the cops." Instead they were keyed up by the unexpected size of the rally and the anger the protesters were expressing. 

"When you have a large crowd of people and a bottle flies out of the crowd, it ramps up everyone's adrenaline," Mike said. "You get lost in the fog of war, and someone gets roughed up just because they're standing there"—in part because, unlike the bottle-thrower who knew it was time to make himself scarce, the innocent victim had no reason to expect he or she would be targeted by police. 

At the same time, he wondered why protesters were not looking to separate themselves from—or even point out to cops—those who resorted to that kind of violence. "When a guy is saying 'let's throw more bricks,' think about whether he's an agitator and doesn't want a peaceful protest and doesn't care about the cause," Mike said. "I think there's a good 10 percent who are violent protesters, and if there's 200 people out there, that's a lot of people."

It bothered him that some of the protesters justified the violence on their side by attributing it to frustration over years of police brutality, whether here or elsewhere, saying, "You don't want to make a rioter who hurls a brick through the window of a van that's filled with cops into a hero."

But he also had no sympathy for the cop captured on video shoving a young woman so hard that she fell to the ground and suffered a concussion, likening it to the incident in Buffalo in which a 75-year-old man shoved by two members of that police department's Emergency Response Team had his head crack open when it hit the pavement. The fact that in both cases the cops involved didn't try to arrest the person they shoved, either before or after they used force, was an indication they just lost their cool, Mike said.

Given the proliferation of cameras, whether on cell-phones, those worn by cops and those installed along streets and buildings by various branches of government, he continued, "We don't live in the 1970s anymore where you can get away with something like that."

Outrage Towards Chauvin

There was widespread anger among his colleagues towards the cop charged with killing Mr. Floyd, he said. "Derek Chauvin's actions were completely illegal, immoral, outrageous...there's no reason to do that," Mike said. "I think even the most-staunch police supporter would say the system needs reforming."

But he expressed empathy for two other cops who were charged with not preventing Mr. Chauvin from killing the handcuffed man, pointing to the vast disparity in power and influence between them. "That guy with the knee in the neck is a 19-year veteran and is the field-training officer, and two other guys there are brand new. I don't know that there's a cop here who would have stood up to him if they were in that position," given the deference Mr. Chauvin's version of the incident likely would have gotten from police brass if he had been stopped short of killing Mr. Floyd. That reality by itself makes the case for sweeping reforms nationally.

What left Mike particularly stunned was how little attention elected officials and the media paid to the looting and how it altered the NYPD's approach to the demonstrations. He agreed with the consensus that seems to have emerged that the destruction and theft was engineered by three discrete groups: anarchists who smashed shop windows in Soho and Greenwich Village, opportunists who carried off what they could, and gangs that methodically planned their strikes in the heart of Manhattan's shopping areas and more-familiar ripoff spots in Brooklyn and The Bronx.

"There were a couple of nights when the looting was particularly bad," he said, starting with Saturday May 30 when "Soho got ransacked" and continuing through June 1, when videos repeatedly showed police pulling up just as many of the looters ran from the scene, sometimes into waiting vehicles.

"I was surprised at how organized it was," Mike said. "Guys would pull up with pry bars ready to rock. You'd have 20-to-50 guys walking around with hammers and crowbars and pry bars...it was opportunism at its finest." 

In one instance, cops sped to University Place in response to a report of shots fired outside Knickerbocker, a Village restaurant popular among politicians and journalists before the pandemic. When they arrived, they learned that the incident involved two gangs quarreling over their looting territory in the area.

Generally, Mike said, "that kind of thing you don't see [around here]—you'd see it in East New York."

Rolls Royce Mystery 

The most-notorious getaway car for the looters had been a Rolls Royce. Where it came from, Mike said, was "what the [NYPD] Intelligence people are working on. There's license-plate readers all over Manhattan, there's cameras at the Holland Tunnel and the Brooklyn Bridge. You figure if they ever find that car, they'll be able to figure out who was in it."  

It was that kind of brazenness that outraged Governor Cuomo sufficiently that he devoted part of his June 2 briefing on the coronavirus to blistering criticism of Mayor de Blasio and the police force for failing to respond effectively to the looting, particularly at numerous luxury stores, and threatened to take control of law enforcement unless they stepped up their efforts.

It wasn't clear whether his anger was motivated primarily by concern about how the smash-and-grab free-for-all might drive companies away and scare off tourists, or whether, the day after President Trump had threatened to send in Federal troops in cities whose mayors and governors didn't "dominate" protesters, Mr. Cuomo was haunted by that happening faster than you could sing "Four dead in Ohio."

But Mike said the angry response from the top of the NYPD was shared by patrol cops, in part because they were simultaneously under fire from several ranking local office-holders for being too aggressive in dealing with protesters. 

"There is a sense that politicians have a double standard," he said. "When Cuomo said that, it enraged the rank and file. He wasn't really aiming at us—it was more at the leadership—but that's how it came off. I think a lot of guys would've agreed with him that the brass didn't do its job well."

Says PBA Preached Caution

But, he said, the NYPD's instructions in dealing with looters were similar to what patrol cops were told by the Police Benevolent Association. "The attitude was, keep it safe, make sure there are no residential intrusions," he said. "Defend people who are getting hurt; defend yourself." If there was any consolation to be taken from the out-of-control moments, he said, it's that "we're just lucky no one's been killed so far."

The looting that spurred so much outrage—partly because there was so much video available—had occurred on the first night that a curfew was in effect that was meant to get protesters off the street to allow cops to shift full attention to the pillaging. But because it was set for 11 p.m., demonstrations were still in full swing—with police overseeing them—when the looters began their dirty work soon after darkness fell. And so that Tuesday night, the curfew was moved up to 8 p.m. and remained in effect through that Saturday night. 

As Mike put it, "14th St. we lost control of to a certain extent. After the [8 p.m.] curfew went into effect, things got a lot better."

But steps the NYPD took when demonstrators refused to disperse soon after the clock struck 8 drew additional criticism about its rough tactics, and Mike was among the officers who were exasperated at the media's view of who was wrong. That Tuesday night, he said, Chief of Department Terence Monahan had addressed a rally at East 53rd St. and 3rd Ave. and "directly warned them at 8 that if they didn't leave, they'd be arrested. They gave them ample chance to leave and they didn't make moves on anyone" until about 9:30, when 200 protesters were taken into custody.

Given that the initial restraint got no cooperation from a large segment of the crowds, he said, the NYPD was left with no choice but to get tougher, or their inaction would have rendered the curfew meaningless. And the fact that so much criticism rained down on cops for doing so—with Mayor de Blasio also catching heat for it, as two nights later, at a memorial for Mr. Floyd, part of the crowd turned its back and heckled while he was speaking—created "a feeling of betrayal," Mike said, among him and his colleagues.

"It's been so anti-cop," he said of both the journalistic coverage and the tone on social media, which he summed up as "this buzzword soup—de-escalate, defund—that kills morale; it wears on us. The abolish-the-police movement has gained some kind of legitimacy." 

He singled out an extensive New York Times feature on "how policing in America is broken beyond repair." Such portrayals, he said, leave cops feeling, "Why do anything? We're screwed either way." 

Not Alarmed by 'Reforms'

But he did not share the sentiment expressed by the PBA and other police unions that the package of police reforms signed into law by Mr. Cuomo June 12 would make cops' jobs significantly harder, even while noting, "The reforms are going to affect the patrol officers more than anyone."

He questioned whether the repeal of Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law, allowing cops' disciplinary records to be publicly disclosed, would make a major difference. He said the subsequent decision by the NYPD to make public body-camera footage of all incidents involving allegations of force didn't worry him because until now, "The body cameras have gotten me out of more trouble than they've gotten me in."

"They want more cops to get fired for misconduct; that may happen," Mike continued. But while one of the changes allows the Civilian Complaint Review Board to bring charges based strictly on video, rather than needing a complaining witness, he said, "I don't think it's necessarily going to mean more cases are gonna be substantiated."

He added, "If civilians looked at what the NYPD really does, it would soothe their anger and their anxiety."

He was skeptical that calls for the Department of Education to take over school safety from the NYPD would be a positive step, noting the responsibility was transferred 22 years ago because DOE handled screening and training incompetently. He noted that the crisis-intervention teams combining cops with social workers in dealing with the homeless in the subways hadn't accomplished much, adding, "I think a lot of cops would love not to have to deal with the mentally ill as much."

'Silly, Knee-Jerk Reaction'

And while Mike believes, "There's definitely waste in the NYPD if they looked at it," most of the proposals made by elected officials and advocates have amounted to "a silly, knee-jerk reaction" that wouldn't bring the improvements they're forecasting.

Along the same lines, he said, was the reaction by the Mayor—as well as many protesters—to an incident in which a cop at one demonstration was captured on video pulling out his gun and brandishing it. Mayor de Blasio said the cop deserved to be stripped of his badge and gun, but went silent after subsequent video that emerged showed he had pulled it after his Lieutenant had been struck by a protester's brick.

"The cop pulled out his gun, pointed it at a group of people and they ran away," Mike said. "Another supervisor pulled him away, and they tended to the injured Lieutenant. That's the way it's supposed to work."

Asked whether the current public mood against the NYPD had forced him to reconsider his future on the force, he replied, "Sure. But I know this is what I want to do. And bad times pass, and good things come back." 

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