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New York Police Continue Pattern of Arrests of Low-Level Crime During COVID-19 Crisis

On a Friday night in April 2020, police arrested a child selling chips and candy at a Harlem subway station, grabbing and restraining him after he failed to obey commands to stop. The arrest came hours after the allegedly violent arrest, filmed by onlookers, of a man who refused to leave a different subway station when told to disburse.

“Government and businesses are drastically modifying practices to limit physical contact, and yet that practice has not been implemented by NYPD,” said the Legal Aid Society, in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea.

“We are deeply concerned that our New York City government officials have not modified or reassessed how the NYPD interacts with already vulnerable communities,” it said. “In every aspect of life, we are expected to act responsibly in order to flatten the curve.... In cities across our country, elected officials are directing police to use discretion, make only ‘necessary contacts’ and to slow down arrests. Mayor de Blasio has made no such similar request of the NYPD.”

As pedestrian and vehicle traffic has been drastically reduced, so have arrests, but many of those arrests are now over more minor, nonviolent offense and “quality of life” violations, like failure to follow social distancing rules.

Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney for Legal Aid’s Cop Accountability Project told The Intercept: “What we are concerned with the most is that the NYPD is utilizing their resources for low-level enforcement of quality of life offenses rather than concentrating and reallocating their resources to what should actually be a priority in this pandemic. Low-level enforcement like a kid selling candy on a subway car should not be a policing priority ever and especially in the middle of a pandemic.… These are issues that could be better addressed with community alternatives, with public health alternatives, connecting somebody to resources. It’s not something that is best addressed with policing and criminalization.”

Legal Aid also noted: “The NYPD has not changed its protocols even in light of this rapidly spreading virus, where the infection rate amongst NYPD personnel is eight times that of New York City, and 10 times higher than the rest of New York state.”

Wong continued: “It’s endemic of the overall over reliance on police in American culture to solve all of our societal ills,” said Wong. “And in this case, to try to police our way out of this pandemic, which we just can’t.” 


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