The commander of an Inwood police precinct was seen on video unofficially deputizing a group of at least 100 people in a Duane Reade parking lot last week — complete with color-coded armbands — and some residents and elected officials are furious.
On June 2, the second night of a city curfew imposed to clamp down on unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, the group had gathered at Dyckman Street and Post Avenue to voice concerns about looting the night before in The Bronx, worried the chaos could cross the river, according to people who were there.
The NYPD’s 34th Precinct heard about the meeting and decided to offer their own advice about what people could do to secure their neighborhood.
Cops told the crowd that if they intended to stay out past curfew to protect the beloved local businesses of Dyckman Street, they should wear white armbands, so they would be distinguished from people who ostensibly weren’t from the neighborhood.
“Make sure you wear white armbands so we know who you are,” Deputy Inspector Peter Andrea tells the crowd in the speech caught on video. It was unclear how many in attendance were actually business owners.
Some in the crowd shot back, “Make sure your officers stay in line!”
As Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan/The Bronx) stands behind him, Andrea further instructs people to not put themselves in harm’s way, to get a police officer to handle any situation. Also at the meeting was state Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa. Espaillat and De La Rosa, who are both up for reelection this year, did not respond to requests for comment.
An NYPD spokesperson, Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell, did not deny Andrea said those words, but said the NYPD did not hand out the armbands. The only instructions relayed were, she said: “If you see something happening like looting, call us, and let us let us know. And we’ll take care of it, because that’s our job.”
But the group didn’t just see something, say something. Videos that went viral from later that night shows the white-armband patrol chasing and harassing supposed outsiders and using racial epithets.
In one video, a group of over 20 individuals, most with white armbands and some carrying baseball bats, are seen chasing after a small group of young men who are walking down Dyckman Street. “Chill chill chill!” says a woman in the video. “Woah, “Dyckman is ready.”
A tweet of the video, since deleted, was viewed over 1.3 million times, according to Patch.
Some residents and elected officials wondered what the police were thinking.
“We have too often seen the tragedies that can occur when untrained and unauthorized citizens become involved with law enforcement,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office wrote to THE CITY, “and so it is not a practice that we support in any way.”
The borough president also noted that a number of unannounced police barricades at multiple entry points to Inwood during the curfew were likely “a technical violation” of the City Charter because her office wasn’t informed.
‘Cause for Concern’
Marilyn Ramirez, a teacher who grew up in Inwood, had just moved back to the neighborhood that Monday after spending seven years in The Bronx and was at the gathering. She attended because she thought it was a Black Lives Matter protest.
“When I saw the police there, I was confused,” said Ramirez, “and I think the other people that were there, they wanted to hear Mike talk,” referring to a popular basketball coach known as “Mike the Mayor,” who addressed the crowd prior to Andrea. “He’s like an important figure in the neighborhood.”
After Andrea spoke, Ramirez was shocked. “The cops are almost like giving them permission to go out and patrol the streets,” she thought.
She says she heard a person say, “Tonight’s the only night in American it’s legal to be a gang member.”
Members of Manhattan’s Community Board 12, which includes Inwood, expressed concerns during a public safety committee meeting on June 3. “From my perspective, it seems as if, you know, they were groups who were deputized by the local precincts to sort of take matters into their own hands,” board member Curtis Young said at the meeting.
State Sen. Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan) says his office is trying to get more details from the precinct.
“While I acknowledge the work they did to keep our community safe during peaceful vigils and protests the past couple of weeks, the behavior of the 34th Precinct leadership that I see on these videos is cause for concern,” Jackson wrote in an email to THE CITY.
City Review Promised
James Dooley, a retired NYPD captain who teaches at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, emphasized that in New York, “there’s no such thing as being deputized.”
“I don’t like that idea at all, especially in this emotionally charged environment,” he said of the 34th Precinct’s decision. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”
It doesn’t matter, said Dooley, whether cops explicitly told people to not take the law into their own hands, because “a lot of people are going to take that as a ‘wink wink — now I’m free to do whatever I want.’”
A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio said City Hall was not aware of the 34 Precinct’s actions.
“It’ll be one of the things the review conducted by Jim Johnson and Margaret Garnett looks into,” the spokesperson, Olivia Lapeyrolerie, wrote to THE CITY, referring to the city corporation counsel and head of the Department of Investigation.
State Attorney General Letitia James’ office, which has been tapped by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to investigate police misconduct during the protests, did not respond to requests for comment.
‘They Really Endangered These Kids’
Juan Rosa, who grew up in Washington Heights, said he was disturbed when he learned about what the 34th Precinct did and plans to call for an official investigation by the NYPD Office of the Inspector General.
“My angle is that they really endangered these kids because what if there was looting?,” said Rosa, who previously worked in local government. “What are these kids gonna do? They’re not gonna go home after he told them to stay out and wear a white band.”
Rosa said he wondered whether officers took the time to determine if the people they were allowing to break curfew were even business owners. “Those are, essentially, a bunch of young people in the parking lot of Duane Reade sort of waiting around,” he said.
The incident didn’t erupt into violence, and no looting was reported in the neighborhood last week. But the next day, on June 3, as residents in the community and on social media began having tough conversations with each other, one neighborhood leader seized an opportunity for healing in the very same Duane Reade parking lot.
Mike, the basketball coach known unofficially as the “Mayor of Dyckman,” was dismayed by the experience. “We came to that parking lot to get the police to do their jobs and keep Dyckman safe,” he told THE CITY. “If they had told us ‘We got this, go home at curfew,’ we would have been happy with that.”
Distressed over the viral video, Mike and others went to lengths to find the young men who were chased after and offered his personal apologies for what happened. It was a misunderstanding, said Mike, and everyone made peace.
“In the past, something like this could have gotten out of control,” he said.