Interrogated by city investigators, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea denied the NYPD overreacted during last year’s racial justice protests — blaming “outside agitators” for violence and insisting cops did a “phenomenal job.”
A transcript of the contentious, two-hour exchange in November with the city Department of Investigation provides an unusually candid depiction of Shea’s defense of a police response that’s been criticized by numerous protesters and elected officials — including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who eventually apologized for cops’ use of what he called “excessive force.”
Under aggressive questioning by DOI investigators, Shea initially conceded the Police Department was at times “flying in the dark” — then reversed course and argued the NYPD was prepared for the demonstrations and handled them with remarkable restraint amid flashes of protester violence.
“I think we responded to a very difficult situation,” Shea said, according to the transcript, obtained by THE CITY under a Freedom of Information Law request. “I think the officers did a phenomenal job under extremely difficult circumstances.”
When DOI Assistant Inspector General Arturo Sanchez asked Shea if he believed the NYPD was “sufficiently prepared for the protests last May,” the commissioner said, “Listen, policing is a world of constantly evaluating and then adapting.”
When pressed about whether he believed the NYPD was prepared, Shea responded, “I do” — and began to refer to police, protesters and what he deemed “outside agitators” as members of different “teams.”
“You’re asking questions on one side. The problem with this discussion is you’re not asking questions of the other team. And maybe there’s three teams in this, right?” he said. “There’s people peacefully protesting, there’s people that wanna drive a wedge and then there’s the Police Department.”
‘Undermined Public Confidence’
The interview with Shea and a separate sit-down with then-Chief of Department Terence Monahan were part of a de Blasio-ordered DOI examination of the NYPD’s handling of weeks of protests that erupted after then-Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on May 25, 2020, a killing captured on video.
DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett released a 115-page report Dec. 18, listing several “deficiencies in the NYPD’s response to the Floyd protests that undermined public confidence in the NYPD’s discharge of its responsibility to protect the rights of citizens to engage in lawful protest.”
Though the protests were predominantly peaceful, in some cases demonstrators attacked cops, damaged property and burned vehicles. In turn, cops were repeatedly accused of excessive use of force, in particular for making mass arrests after trapping groups via a tactic called “kettling.”
DOI reviewed hours of video taken at protests and collected the statements of dozens of protesters, examined police records and social media, and interviewed Shea, Monahan, the authors of a Human Rights Watch report and multiple elected officials.
Investigators found the NYPD lacked a clear strategy on how to handle the protests as the unrest grew, sent in officers untrained in policing demonstrations and at times relied on excessive use of force that ultimately “heightened tensions.”
Hours after the report was released, de Blasio tweeted out a video of himself apologizing and stating, “I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons and I want the police department to do better.”
This is a season of reflection.— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) December 18, 2020
I’ve read the Department of Investigation’s report on the NYPD’s handling of the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. It’s clear that we have we to do something different in New York City.
We have to do something better. pic.twitter.com/nhY12KSNuE
In his public response, Shea acknowledged that the report “pointed out some things that we could look at internally here,” but he added, “Do I agree with every notion of it? No.”
Shea and Monahan’s interviews were mentioned but not released as part of the DOI report.
In giving transcripts to THE CITY, DOI’s Assistant General Counsel Christopher Tellet made clear in a letter that the release was highly unusual because the agency rarely discloses the interviews of witnesses “to ensure that witnesses speak with full and open candor” and to protect witnesses’ privacy.
In this case, Tellet wrote, DOI made an exception, finding that “most, if not all, statements made by these two interviewees represented the testimony of an agency rather than the statements of individuals.”
‘It was Disgusting’
DOI’s interview with Shea took place via video conference Nov. 12 and with Monahan in person Oct. 28. Shea was questioned for two hours and became more unguarded — and less diplomatic — as questioning went on.
The commissioner clashed at times with Sanchez and other DOI senior managers, including Garnett. He repeatedly highlighted violence by groups he said “infiltrated” peaceful protests to damage property and attack cops, and he downplayed accusations of police misconduct.
Asked what concerns he had about the way the NYPD’s actions were being portrayed, he responded, “The biggest one, as you know, some of the violence or perceived violence by officers.”
He acknowledged “a couple of instances of conduct by officers that was inappropriate. That was acted upon pretty quickly I would say, probably quicker than historically has been done in the Police Department.”
As of mid-March, the Civilian Complaint Review Board had received 297 complaints containing 2,000 allegations of police abuse related to the protests. Of that CCRB substantiated allegations against 20 cops, recommending departmental charges in only two cases. Complaints against another 185 cops were still under review.
But he then contended individuals “looking to sow distrust between the police and the community” had publicized “incidents that, while they may not look pretty and they never will frankly, they weren’t misconduct.”
He said he was particularly struck by the number of attacks on police during protests. The NYPD tallied 386 officer injuries from May 28 to June 11, and more than 300 NYPD vehicles damaged, including two immolated by Molotov cocktails.
“It was the volume. It was the breadth,” Shea said. “I mean officers making lawful arrests and people coming up and hitting them in the heads with fire extinguishers. I mean you name it, it happened. It was disgusting. And it was unprecedented.”
He defended a particularly notorious incident that occurred May 30 in Brooklyn, when cops in two marked vehicles lurched forward into a crowd of protesters that had surrounded them and were throwing garbage at the cars.
“I also don’t agree that the vehicle was being used as a use of force. I think that characterization is false,” Shea said. “I would not characterize, based on the totality of that circumstance, the use of that car as a use of force when you look at everything that was happening in that instance.”
Skipped Human Rights Report
Shea also defended how cops handled crowds out on the streets after the curfew imposed by de Blasio in June. Demonstrators complained the NYPD would swoop in and make mass arrests of protesters without first warning them that they were in violation of curfew.
DOI presented Shea with two messages the department sent out to rank-and-file cops via the internal messaging system known as FINEST:
On June 1, the message was “Enforcement will only be taken after several warnings are issued and the violators are refusing to comply.”
On June 3, the message changed to advising cops who “observe a person violating the curfew” that “a [low-level] C Summons may be issued without issuing warnings.”
Sanchez noted, “There was no mention of instruction [warning protesters] this time. It was just straight to C Summons. The difference between the June 1st and the June 3rd FINEST message, who would have made that call to remove the warning piece?”
Shea then responded that he saw no significant difference between the messages, stating, “I think that the officers, it’s widely known they have discretion.” He noted that the department’s legal team would likely have signed off on the messages.
Shea also contested the accusation that the NYPD engages in “kettling,” trapping groups of protesters in a confined space, warning them to disperse — and then moving in to make mass arrests.
He said he was familiar with the term but that it was “never a term to my knowledge that the Police Department used.”
He said the general practice was to first give warnings to disperse, and that NYPD legal affairs staff would be present to observe this “so that a different story can’t be told afterwards that may not be true that we didn’t warn people. We video this.”
“It would not make sense to me that we would be blocking people off and warning them at the same time,” he said, contending that only after warnings were ignored would police set up what he called a “perimeter” around groups to make arrests.
A Human Rights Watch report released in September alleged that cops began arresting protesters before the curfew kicked in during a June 3 protest in Mott Haven, The Bronx, when more than 250 peaceful protesters were surrounded and arrested.
Asked about this report, Shea said he hadn’t read it.
“I heard there was a report. I heard references to it. I’ve learned not to believe anything I read in the paper,” he said. “Quite frankly, I did not read their report. But I know the facts. So I wasn’t going to read their report.”
‘Intelligence Reports’ Cited
In his interview with DOI, Monahan offered a different perspective on the Mott Haven protest: He was there. But when he was asked about the term “kettling,” he responded, “First time I heard kettling was when I read it in the paper.”
Monahan said that sometimes police would restrict movement so they could make an arrest: “If a commander on the scene determines that everyone that is on the scene needs to be arrested ’cause they violated some sort of law, at that point you want to contain the people that you’re gonna arrest so that people can’t flee.”
He justified the massive police response at Mott Haven to “intelligence reports” the NYPD received before the event that protesters intended to cause damage to the neighborhood and burn down the 40th Precinct station house.
Monahan said just before the Mott Haven protest, an individual was arrested with a gun on 149th Street where the march was to begin, and that cops stopped a car and found fireworks, hammers and helmets. He stated that the passengers said “they intended to utilize these things during the course of the march.”
During his interview, DOI played parts of the Human Rights Watch video that detailed how police corralled protesters together before making arrests, including legal observers who later said they were supposed to be exempt from arrest.
Monahan blamed the NYPD’s Legal Division officers who were on site for authorizing the arrest of impartial legal observers and said he ordered them released — an order he says he conveyed by phone to de Blasio from the scene.
He said all the arrests — including those of the legal observers — were justified because of violations of the 8 p.m. curfew then imposed by the mayor.
In Monahan’s view, the protest would have turned “violent” had officers let people march there freely, but he conceded he never spoke to any organizers of the demonstrators and wasn’t sure if anyone on his staff had done so.
‘We Did a Good Job’
Liz Glazer, former head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, questioned how Monahan could claim to have never heard of “kettling,” noting that the same scenario — mass arrests of trapped protesters — occurred several times after Mott Haven.
Monahan, who joined the NYPD in 1982 and rose all the way to the No. 2 position in the department, was previously criticized for overseeing use of the same tactic during mass protester arrests at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
“We have gone well beyond an institution that finds it difficult to learn to an institution that sort of lacks transparency and accountability of any kind and feels completely emboldened to simply do what it feels it needs to do without any consultation,” Glazer told THE CITY. “I really am perplexed by that.”
During his questioning by DOI, Monahan argued there’s been too much focus on police misconduct and not enough on violence committed by protesters.
“Obviously, you’re hearing concerns saying that we were too brutal,” he said. “You’re not hearing enough of the concerns about how we were brutalized. Thoroughly. I’ll speak specifically to myself. I was hit with numerous items throughout the course of the protests. I was assaulted right here on the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Overall, he insisted, the NYPD handled last summer’s police misconduct protests properly.
“I think we did a lot well,” he said. “I think — there was no loss of life during the course of this. No buildings went up in flames. No businesses were burned out. The looters, I think we responded, we — we made sure we were able to contain it to the best of our ability. For a city of 8.6 million people, I thought we did a good job in light of unprecedented type circumstances.
“It was an unusual time, something that I hope never to see again in the city where people who just wanted to cause anarchy succeeded,” he added.
Seeking the ‘Anarchist Minutes’
In contrast to Monahan, Shea noted he had not been present for any of the protests, and he complained repeatedly about “misinformation” put out by groups he said “infiltrated” peaceful demonstrations.
He complained about videos posted to social media he said had been edited to make the cops look bad that did not present the entire circumstance of some confrontations between protesters and police.
“In terms of the public information piece, too, I think there was a campaign waged that many still don’t realize, by some, and I’ll call it, on the anarchist side — they were intentionally attempting to drive a wedge between the police and the community,” he said.
As the protests went on, he said the NYPD tried to counter that narrative by putting out their own videos showing incidents in what Shea described as a fuller context. “We were more proactive in terms of putting information out about what was really happening on the ground.”
In its final report, DOI criticized the department for this approach, writing, “The department’s public messaging, at times, further reinforced the tensions created by the response strategy, by calling attention primarily to violence and looting without simultaneous acknowledgment of the pain and anger that gave rise to the protests, or due regard for the many individuals airing their grievances with the government in a peaceful manner.”
In comments to the press after the report was released, Garnett was asked how much Shea misled the public during the protests about what was happening.
“Many of the public statements that emphasized (police) restraint, that emphasized violence on the part of the protesters...that really characterized the entirety of the protests as a disorder problem to solve — that was really a disservice and a missed opportunity and is reflective of the approach that the department took,” Garnett responded.
Nearing the end of the interview, Shea again pressed DOI to make sure to interview all the “teams” involved in the summer’s protests. DOI assured him that they would talk “to everybody.”
Shea responded, “If you could forward me a copy of the anarchist minutes, I’d appreciate that.”