Plainclothes Officers, 6 percent of NYC Police Force, Involved in 31 percent of Fatal Police Shootings
by Matt Clarke
Recently published information shows that plainclothes officers, who make up about 6 percent of the New York Police Department (“NYPD”), are involved in 31 percent of New York City’s fatal police shootings. This has led critics to question the behavior of NYPD’s plainclothes officers, who often act like gang thugs to “blend in” with the neighborhoods they stake out.
A recent analysis by The Intercept used data from the Fatal Encounters project to show that a relatively small group, plainclothes officers, were involved in nearly one-third of New York City’s fatal police shootings since 2000. The 174 fatal shootings included 54 involving only plainclothes officers, 41 involving only uniformed police officers, 11 involving both, and 68 in which it is unknown whether the involved officers were plainclothes or uniformed.
The analysis was complicated by the fact that the NYPD refers to both officers working undercover and those working out-of-uniform as “plainclothes officers.” Further, the NYPD does not release comprehensive information on police shooting incidents.
The NYPD also does not disclose the number of its approximately 20,000 officers who work in its plainclothes units. The Intercept used information provided by retired NYPD sergeant and John Jay College of Criminal Justice adjunct professor Joe Giacalone to estimate the number of plainclothes officers. Giacalone said the NYPD is composed of about 77 precincts, each running three shifts, with each shift having one four-person plainclothes team at each precinct for a total of around 900 plainclothes officers.
Assuming that the officers working at the estimated 20 transit, housing and special-assignment commands work plainclothes at about the same rate, the total becomes approximately 1,200 plainclothes officers throughout the NYPD.
Plainclothes officers are members of elite, roving anti-crime units. Instead of waiting for a 911 call to report a crime, they direct their own investigations. But an aggressive, proactive role can create dangerous situations.
“Because you’re not wearing a uniform, if you roll up on a couple of guys, they might think they’re getting robbed, they might start shooting right away,” said Giacalone.
People living in the neighborhoods where plainclothes officers operate have a different take on the situation. “The undercovers are doing what they want to do,” said Ken Davis, a barber at Kev’s Unique Barber Shop in Crown Heights where Shaeed Vassell, a man fatally shot by plainclothes officers on April 4, 2018, worked. “Mostly the undercovers want to provoke you. They ride up slowly, windows down, and then they say, like, ‘What are you looking at?’ And then when you say something back, they get out of the car.”
“You’ll never see a blue-suit cop doing crazy shit like that,” said Vern, a 21-year-old nurse who was sitting in the barber shop about a week after Vassell was killed. “The undercovers think they have the authority to do anything they want. They hunt motherfuckers—hunt us black people—down.”
“If they’re driving in an unmarked car, they’ll say, ‘What the fuck you looking at?’” said Tye Wike, a customer at the barber shop. “And if you say something back to them, not knowing who they are, then they act like gangsters. It’s only in minority neighborhoods that they do that.”
It remains unclear why plainclothes officers responded to a call about a man with a gun and shot Vassell that day.
“If there is a call for help or a robbery in progress, like if the cop is calling for help, they will come as a backup to those kind of jobs,” Giacalone stated. “But their role is not to take things off the radio.”
Vern believes uniformed officers would not have shot Vassell. “The blue always tells you what they’re doing,” she said. “The 71st Precinct cops knew Saheed. They knew him.”
A NYPD report, released in 2016, found that close to half of the officers involved in “‘adversarial conflicts”—“when an officer intentionally discharges his or her firearm during a confrontation with a subject” were in plainclothes. The report also found that specialty units, including anti-crime teams, were involved in about a third of the incidents in which a police officer discharged a firearm.
The report cited “the role of specialty units in proactively pursuing violent criminals,” as the reason for the disparity.
Plainclothes NYPD police officers have been involved in many high-profile fatal shootings of civilians, including the 1999 shooting of Bronx resident Amadou Diallo. He was shot 41 times without warning by four plainclothes officers who mistook him for another man. Those officers were members of a specialty “Street Crimes” unit, which was officially disbanded, but actually only renamed, in response to media attention to the shooting.
In 2006, plainclothes officers fatally shot Queens resident Sean Bell as he was leaving a bachelor party. Bell was to be married later that day. The officers fired 50 rounds at Bell and two other men after the car they were in hit an unmarked police vehicle.
Brooklyn resident Kimani Gray, 16, was fatally shot by members of a plainclothes anti-crime unit who claimed he was pulling a gun out of his waistband. A witness testified under oath that Gray’s hands were in the air when he was shot.
Eric Garner was illegally selling individual cigarettes in a park in 2014 when plainclothes officer Daniel Pantaleo fatally applied a prohibited chokehold to him. It was never explained why a plainclothes officer undertook a misdemeanor arrest.
In addition to the controversial and numerous fatal encounters with often unarmed civilians, plainclothes officers have been criticized for not using body cameras and for obscuring or altering the license plates on their unmarked vehicles, which is often the only way to identify them. Clearly, additional training on conflict de-escalation and better oversight is needed.