CLASH NOT PRETTY, BUT NOT NECESSARILY DAMNING: A video of the struggle between Police Officer Francisco Garcia (left) and Housing Caretaker Donni Wright on the ground sparked a public furor that included Mayor de Blasio deeming the cop's actions 'unacceptable.' But one veteran officer who viewed the video said it wasn't clear what precipitated the aggressive tactics by Officer Garcia and whether he had justification in believing that 'the best defense is a good offense.'

The problem with jumping to conclusions based on the May 2 video in which Police Officer Francisco Garcia strikes Donni Wright several times and takes him to the ground is that it was shot from behind Mr. Wright, so you can neither see his face nor read his body language as he approaches the cop, who is moving toward him.

Officer Garcia was reported to have said, just before initiating the contact, "What are you flexing for? Don't flex."

Other cops had just broken up a group clustered in the East Village and arrested a man and a woman who did not have their faces covered, allegedly taking a stun gun from the woman. There's no way to tell from the video whether Officer Garcia's "don't flex" warning was based on his sense that Mr. Wright, a Housing Authority Caretaker, was about to get physical, or the cop was concocting a narrative to support his imminent striking of someone he perceived as about to interfere with a police action.

Mayor Flexes His Knee

That uncertainty did not inhibit Mayor de Blasio from subsequently pronouncing the video "very troubling" and branding what he saw "absolutely unacceptable." Police Commissioner Dermot Shea was more inclined to reserve judgment, though he said the video showed "some tactics that I was not happy with."

It was no surprise that Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch reacted angrily, and no mystery as to the main target of his wrath when he declared, "The cowards who run this city have given us nothing but vague guidelines and mixed messages, leaving the cops on the street-corners to fend for themselves. 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."

The irony of his response was that the phrase "nobody has a right to interfere with a police action" has been uttered more than once over the past year by Mr. de Blasio. He apparently forgot those words in using his gut rather than his head to react to a video that, disturbing as it may look, doesn't begin to paint a full picture of what was transpiring before Officer Garcia struck Mr. Wright.

Regarding the incident and how it began, an officer I'll call Mike the Cop said in a May 6 phone interview, "The social-distancing stuff has gotten a little dicey. It sounded like it was a large crowd and [the officers who responded] needed back-up."

He said of Officer Garcia's getting physical, "Whether he needed to use force isn't clear. I watched the video a couple of times and I couldn't really tell what was happening. The video starts in an awkward place: we can't really tell what precipitated it." 

Mike continued, "Instances of force being used like that are probably more common than people realize. It's a mentality that you're under some type of siege and the best defense is a good offense."

It would have been more damning, he said, if Officer Garcia, who reportedly has been the target of seven lawsuits alleging improper use of force that the city settled for a total of $200,000, had treated Mr. Wright as roughly as he did and then declined to arrest him. "The fact that he effected an arrest gives it a sense of legitimacy," he said, since doing so would bring the case to the attention of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office—which has declined to charge Mr. Wright and the two people arrested at the scene earlier in the confrontation—and make it more likely that a lawsuit would be filed against Officer Garcia and the city.

Unit Prizes Aggression

Mike said that when Mr. Wright continued moving toward him, rather than wait to see whether he merely wanted to argue up-close or intended to be physical, the cop decided, "You're not going to get near me." He noted the past complaints against Officer Garcia, then added, "And it's true that they tend to take more-aggressive, proactive guys to be in the plainclothes units. They have a more-aggressive stance; they tend to be like the jocks in high school."

He continued, "And they do tend to accumulate the most complaints because of what they're doing. It's changed a bit because of the body cameras, but that's their mindset—it's just the way they're trained" in units that are perceived as stepping stones to promotions to Detective. "And the assignments are more dangerous." Putting himself in the shoes of the officers at this particular scene, Mike added, "There's four of us and we're effecting this arrest and seeing this large crowd with some people shouting, and getting a little nervous."

I asked whether their apprehension might have grown because the first two people they arrested weren't wearing protective face coverings, given that cops are required to don them and that the coronavirus had raised the NYPD's absence rate among uniformed officers to 20 percent just a few weeks earlier.

"Everyone's very on edge," Mike replied regarding that sort of street encounter. "There's a lot more worrying about that sort of thing. When a prisoner's brought into the station-house, they give them a mask. And no prisoner has given us a problem—they seem to understand the reason behind it. That may be part of what contributed" to the tensions during the East Village incident. "And, of course, it's May, and nice weather brings out people in bigger numbers."

Did that raise concerns that if the virus doesn't significantly subside in the city, cops will face the proverbial long, hot summer?

"Oh, absolutely," Mike said.

'Too Quick to Condemn'

Assessing the comments of the Mayor, Commissioner Shea and Mr. Lynch, he said, "De Blasio does have a tendency to be too quick to condemn the police, though what Shea said wasn't all that different. But then again, de Blasio can do no right with the police," with the battle lines long ago drawn between him and the union leaders representing Police Officers and Sergeants and their rank and files. 

He noted that Mr. Lynch, notwithstanding his angry remarks, had not threatened to direct his members not to enforce social distancing, and speculated that he spoke so forcefully to head off demonization of Officer Garcia by the Mayor and the media. "I think he wanted to make a statement on it without commenting on what is an ongoing investigation," Mike said.

He continued, "The problem is, with a big crowd, you can train [officers] all you want, but eventually something is going to happen that somebody isn't too happy about." When it comes to the level of discipline imposed against cops in such cases, "Sometimes it depends on what executive comes down to investigate. Some Captains come down harder on cops, and some tend to be more lenient."

Regarding the quick decision to place Officer Garcia on modified assignment, Mike said, "Maybe he said something when he was first questioned about it. It may come down to the body camera and what it shows. Or it may be he hadn't turned on the body camera because he was taking exigent action."

Wait for the Lawsuit?

The full story, he surmised, may not emerge until a lawsuit is filed on behalf of Mr. Wright and pries loose witness statements and possibly footage from video-cameras on the block that offers a clear look at him as he moved toward Officer Garcia. 

The last time I had interviewed Mike on March 28, he had spoken of "a lot of frightened cops." Earlier that morning, Det. Cedric Dixon had become the first uniformed member of the NYPD to die of COVID-19, which was sweeping its way through the force: sick leave was at 10 percent, and more than 900 officers had tested positive for the virus. 

Things quickly got worse: slightly more than a week later, the sick rate hit 20 percent and positive cases sharply multiplied as well, and by the third week in April, four more Detectives had died.

Mike, who said he had recently been tested for antibodies and come up negative, meaning he hadn't been infected previously without knowing it, said, "The good news is that most people are coming back." There was no wariness for him and his colleagues about working with officers who had returned after recuperating from the virus, explaining, "We work in close quarters with each other, and the understanding is that it's not a big deal. So many people have had it, and so the feeling is, it is what it is. No reason to treat one person different than anyone else."

One concern he had expressed five weeks earlier was that the longer the crisis persisted, the more uneasiness would grow among officers, particularly if the NYPD started deploying them on 12-hour tours, as it had for the week beginning with Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, because of the physical and mental toll extended shifts can take, particularly if there's no sign of them ending. 

Less Taxing Than Feared

Asked about that now, Mike said, "I think people have adjusted to that this is going to go on for a while. The fact that they didn't go to the 12-hour tours and that people are dong the same jobs they were doing before has been positive. And since the volume of work is down, that's kept morale up."

He noted that assaults, robberies and commercial burglaries had all risen, but in other categories there had been declines in his precinct. He said  cops were "not being dispatched at all" to auto accidents in which there's nothing more serious than property damage, and said that while speeding was up--some motorists, I said, seemed to regard the Belt Parkway as the east-coast spur of the Bonneville Salt Flats--crashes were actually down because of fewer cars on the road.

"There's no expectation in terms of summonsing," Mike said. "There hasn't been the sort of usual nonsense [about quotas], and that's kept morale at least semi-solid. They had overtime details over the last weekend for social distancing, but where we were, that just meant keep the people moving, and it's overtime and that's more money. I can't speak for East New York, The Bronx or Jamaica," three areas where crowd control is more likely to lead to confrontations.

Nor had the East Village incident and some of the criticism it provoked left cops in other precincts feeling like they were walking on eggshells—"Not any more than usual," he said. "I think for the most part it's show up, do your job and try to go home on time."

Over the past seven or eight years, he said, the NYPD had evolved from "proactive to reactive" in its patrol strategies. Several factors were responsible: the sharp downgrade in stop-and-frisks that began in early 2012 and accelerated after a Federal Judge's ruling in August 2013 that the NYPD's overuse of the tactic violated the Constitution, prompting the appointment of a Federal monitor; Eric Garner's death that grew out of "an arrest for selling loosies" in July 2014—Mr. de Blasio's first year as Mayor—and the accidental killing of Akai Gurley four months later when a cop doing a vertical patrol in a troubled East New York housing project opened the door to a stairwell, was startled by the sound of Mr. Gurley stepping onto the landing a floor below, and reflexively fired his gun.

Unintended Consequences

"Proactive policing does stop crime," Mike said, "but it creates the atmosphere for other types of incidents. We've gone from where if someone was going up and down the block looking in store windows, they wanted you to stop him, to where you might just park there to let him know you're watching."

Regarding recent complaints about uneven enforcement of social distancing in which black and Latino residents have been given a harder time than white ones at similar gatherings, he said, "If people are sitting on benches and having a picnic in the park, do we really want to break that up? If there's a block party or a large funeral going on, that may be a different situation."

Asked about a recent scuffle in Williamsburg between police and Orthodox Jews when a crowd that quickly gathered for the funeral of a popular rabbi grew far larger than anticipated and members of it had no masks in tight quarters, Mike wondered, "Why would anyone want to have these large gatherings when there's this very deadly disease out there. I think there's this frustration among police: why aren't they more aware?"

I told him that early in the pandemic, when Inside City Hall host Errol Louis asked former City Councilman David Greenfield, an Orthodox Jew, about large gatherings in Brooklyn neighborhoods despite mass infections in Orthodox communities in Westchester and Rockland counties, Mr. Greenfield replied that much of that community did not get its information from traditional news media and so was often unaware of preventive steps.

"I hadn't heard that," Mike said.

Being able to admit that he hadn't known everything there was to know about a controversial situation was a quality that, if it spread to Mr. de Blasio, would be a healthy infection.     

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