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Just Five Cops Face Serious Penalties in De Blasio’s Promised Accounting of NYPD Protest Misconduct Caught on Video

The NYPD released video of an officer pepper spraying a bystander in Midtown during a protest on June 1, 2020.
The NYPD released video of an officer pepper spraying a bystander in Midtown during a protest on June 1, 2020.
NYPD

Just five NYPD officers are facing potentially significant discipline stemming from misconduct captured on video during last year’s racial justice protests — out of 64 cases investigated by the department at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s behest.

Investigators from the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau substantiated or partially substantiated an additional nine allegations of misconduct — but those findings resulted in relatively minor discipline, ranging from verbal reprimands to the loss of five days vacation, officials said.

Of the remaining cases, 29 were unsubstantiated, meaning misconduct couldn’t be proven or disproven, and 16 were exonerated, which means the officers’ actions were deemed reasonable under the circumstances.

Four cases were classified as “information and intelligence,” where information to continue a probe was lacking. In one case, the misconduct allegation was declared unfounded by investigators.

Most of the videos were posted to social media in late May and early June after protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

A good number went viral because they captured police using serious force: an officer wrenching a known legal observer to the ground; a beefy cop shoving a young woman backward to the pavement; a police SUV, boxed in by protesters, plowing straight into the crowd.

NYPD officials have noted that more than 400 officers were injured during the protests — including 260 who were hospitalized — while protesters caused more than $800,000 in damage to police vehicles.

But some people who charge they were brutalized by police say they were never contacted by investigators or were given short shrift by them.

And even the cops facing more serious discipline are subject to a wide range of penalties: from the loss of 10 days vacation to firing. Still, the ultimate determination is up to the police commissioner, who could forgo any punishment.

Times Change for de Blasio

Despite pleas from advocates, protesters and elected officials at the time calling for de Blasio to rein in the NYPD’s rough response, the mayor for weeks dug in — often citing his own eyewitness accounts — on his belief that cops were mostly doing things the right way.

“Look, there are some specific instances I don’t accept, where there needs to be discipline,” the mayor told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on June 5, 2020. “But the vast majority of what I’ve seen is peaceful protest that has been respected as always, and folks making sure voices heard for change, and police have shown a lot of restraint.”

On June 12, state lawmakers repealed a law known as 50-a that had shielded the disciplinary records of police officers and other uniformed personnel from the public — a move toward transparency that advocates had sought for years.

But it wasn’t until The New York Times gathered 64 videos showing alleged police misconduct into a single story published in July that de Blasio promised a full and public accounting of disciplinary outcomes.

“We need to create a very consistent regular process where people can see updates on each and every one of those videos and know what the determination was, because I think people deserve it,” de Blasio told Lehrer on July 24. “I think if there’s a reason that an officer needs to be modified or suspended quickly, that should be clear. If they don’t need to be, then that should be an answer and why. If there’s follow up, a bigger discipline, that should be clear.”

Nearly a year later, police officials have provided only a general picture of how the consequences played out.

‘Head Gushing Blood’

A video posted to Twitter on June 2 shows a stocky police officer shoving a female protester onto her back, nearly toppling a cyclist off his bike and then body-slamming a young man onto the pavement in Brooklyn — all in the span of 25 seconds.

He appeared to be trying to keep them far away from arrests that were taking place in the middle of Fourth Avenue, near the Barclays Center.

“I am the ‘third man’ in this video,” reads testimony that Jack Norton submitted to the City Council’s hearing on the NYPD’s handling of the protests, a week after the incident.

“My body was lifted in the air and slammed to the ground head first with massive force by a cop 2 times my size,” his written statement continues. “I stumbled off not sure if I had a concussion. Blacked out for a second. Head gushing blood. A minute later I am on the sidewalk while other protestors are trying to help give me aid.”

Norton said in the testimony that he had simply been asking the cops not to beat up someone they were arresting at the time.

The case was investigated by IAB and marked as “partially substantiated” by the NYPD. Department officials said the use of force in the video was “exonerated,” but the officer was disciplined for failing to fill out forms required when force is used.

Lawyers for Norton said the outcome was par for the course.

“This is typical NYPD where police who assault people without justification rarely face any consequences, even with clear and concrete video evidence as we have here,” said one of Norton’s attorneys, Elena Cohen, a partner at Cohen & Green.

She said the NYPD never contacted Norton as part of its investigation, despite the testimony he submitted to City Council on June 9 and his filing a notice of claim — a prelude to a lawsuit — with the city in August.

The NYPD also marked the date of the incident as unknown, even though the person who filmed it — Make The Road NY director of politics Daniel Altschuler — was interviewed as part of the investigation. The video was posted on June 2.

Altschuler said he separately filed a complaint about the officer’s conduct with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Altschuler shared an email from a sergeant in the investigations unit of the NYPD, Thomas Reeder, sent on Feb. 4, 2021, saying that “based on interviews and videos from the scene, I was unable to substantiate an allegation of excessive force against the subject officer. No discipline was issued by this office.”

Reeder advised Altschuler that the CCRB was still examining the allegations, and that “their independent investigation may have a different outcome,” according to the email.

A CCRB spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the case.

But as of mid-March, the agency revealed that it had received 297 complaints containing 2,000 allegations of police abuse related to the protests last year.

At the time, 185 of the cases were still under review — while allegations were substantiated against 20 officers, including two facing potentially significant discipline.

A police spokesperson couldn’t say how many cases stemming from complaints against police for their actions during the protests were investigated beyond the group of 64, nor what their outcomes were.

Pepper Spray and Excessive Force

From the IAB probes, the five personnel facing potentially serious penalties include Officer Vincent D’Andraia, who was charged with assault last year after he allegedly shoved protester Dounya Zayer backward onto the pavement on May 29, 2020.

Those penalties could range anywhere from 10 lost vacation days to termination.

D’Andraia, whom the NYPD placed on modified duty, has a court appearance scheduled for Friday, according to a spokesperson for the Brooklyn District Attorney.

The IAB substantiated that D’Andraia wrongfully used excessive force against a civilian, causing injury, along with other charges, police officials said. But whether he’s disciplined at all will be up to an NYPD administrative trials judge, and ultimately, the police commissioner.

The same goes for the four others facing heavier penalties. In those cases, according to police officials, the Internal Affairs Bureau determined that:

  • Officer Michael Sher wrongfully and without cause used force against a civilian when he pulled down a protester’s mask and pepper-sprayed him in the face in Brooklyn on May 30.
  • Officer Hannah Cottignies improperly used pepper spray, when she deployed it as she was running past a group of bystanders in Manhattan on June 1.
  • Sergeant Majer Saleh failed to fill out a use-of-force form after he used pepper spray on a group of protesters, while failing to turn on his body camera, on May 31. He was not cited for the pepper-spraying itself, which took place in Manhattan.
  • Officer Craig McGrath used excessive force when he opened the door of an unmarked vehicle he was riding in as it drove past a protester standing in the street in Brooklyn — striking him. IAB substantiated other charges as well that the NYPD didn’t detail.

An attorney for D’Andraia didn’t respond to requests for comment, while an attorney for Sher declined comment.

A lawyer for Saleh didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Cottignies and McGrath couldn’t be reached for comment.

NYPD Won’t Name Names

Despite the mayor’s repeated promises of a full breakdown of the 64 cases, NYPD officials refused to name the nine officers against whom minor discipline was imposed stemming from substantiated or partially substantiated cases.

Those cases included a high-ranking officer who approached a protester and shoved him backward with both hands, and an officer who pulled and tossed a protester so forcefully that the man’s head slammed into the front end of a police vehicle.

Police officials also declined to detail which allegations were proven in each of those nine cases.

To date, the NYPD has only published disciplinary information on officers facing more serious charges who are found guilty at administrative hearings. NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller said the withholding of the officer names was consistent with that practice.

He noted that of the 64 cases, some went unsolved because investigators said they couldn’t identify the officers, who were deployed throughout the city rather than assigned to neighborhoods within their own precincts.

Miller also said video of seemingly unprovoked uses of force may not have captured the acts that preceded them — for example, he cited a person breaking the window of a police vehicle and then trying to blend in with the mass of protesters before being taken down by officers.

But when THE CITY asked police officials if they could explain what circumstances led to findings of unsubstantiated or exonerated in a number of cases — including information that could help illuminate the wider context of an officer’s actions — they didn’t respond.

Jennvine Wong, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project, said that “without more information to evaluate these findings, I think a layperson would wonder how so many videos where it is obvious excessive force has been used would be unsubstantiated by IAB investigators.”

‘Look Back with Remorse’

The latter half of 2020 saw a string of reports highly critical of the NYPD’s handling of the protests.

In September, Human Rights Watch concluded that the NYPD violated human rights laws by trapping protesters — a practice known as “kettling” — and the rough arrests of hundreds of demonstrators in Mott Haven on June 4.

In December, the city’s Department of Investigation released a report that detailed a pattern of excessive use of force by the department during last year’s protests, on the same day de Blasio issued a video apology via Twitter.

“I’m reflecting on what happened in May and June and I look back with remorse,” de Blasio said at the time. “I’m sorry I didn’t do better. And I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons and I want the Police Department to do better. And I’m going to insist on that.”

In January, state Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against the NYPD seeking reforms and alleging that the department had demonstrated “brutal force” against protesters and a “pattern of false arrests.”

But until now, little had been revealed about individual officer accountability.

The outcomes provided by the NYPD showed that a number of high-profile incidents ended with internal exonerations for the officers — including the one who tackled an impartial legal observer.

But while then-chief of Department Terence Monahan blamed the incident on officers from the department’s legal unit who were on site in Mott Haven, the records provided by the NYPD don’t detail whether any supervising officers were investigated or disciplined in that case.

The officers who drove an SUV into a group of protesters in Brooklyn were also exonerated, the records show.

Never Contacted by Investigators

But former NYPD officer Eugene O’Donnell, now a professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the SUV video has been an absurd example for advocates to use to denigrate the police, given the real danger the officers were facing at the time.

“That was their iconic representation of their protest — that the cops should have put the car in park while they were surrounded by a hostile mob. That they did not do that was regarded by them as evidence that the NYPD is, you know, a death squad from Chile or something ridiculous, right?” said O’Donnell. “It shows you how silly the conversation was.”

In another video that was retweeted over 100,000 times, a bicyclist was seen getting battered with batons by multiple officers as he tried to cross Third Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.

A pre-lawsuit notice filed by the cyclist says he was protesting on June 3 near 50th Street when he took out his phone to record a group of cops charging at protesters.

He said an officer wearing khakis knocked the phone out of his hand with a baton, and then continued hitting him as he turned back to retrieve it. The officer kicked the phone away, the claim says.

Two other officers joined in with baton strikes.

The cyclist, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons by his lawyer, civil rights attorney Gideon Oliver, says he never got his bike back from police.

That case was closed because investigators were “Unable to identify complainant and subject,” according to the outcome records.

But Oliver said that his client, who submitted his notice of claim against the city in September and then testified under oath at a statutory hearing, was never contacted by investigators.

Oliver is also jointly representing Norton and the legal observer, Krystin Hernandez.

“I don’t know what they did to try to identify the subject officers they say they can’t identify,” said Oliver. “But I can tell you they didn’t do anything meaningful to try to identify the person who got beat up — because the city has known his identity for a while.”

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