New York City’s mayor and police commissioner on Sunday both defended local officers engaged in violent standoffs with protesters as mass demonstrations erupted across the U.S., sparked by the death of Black man George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.
Videos and images circulated on social media Saturday afternoon showing New York Police Department officers driving vans into crowds, accosting credentialed media ― and arresting a HuffPost reporter ― and, in one instance, apparently pulling down a protester’s mask to pepper spray him as the demonstrations progressed into the evening.
Referring to officers driving into crowds, de Blasio said on Saturday he thought the incident could have been avoided “if those protesters had just gotten out of the way and not created an attempt to surround that vehicle.”
De Blasio also announced in a news briefing on Sunday that two local investigators — Department of Investigation head Margaret Garnett and Corporation Counsel James Johnson — will conduct an independent review in June of the NYPD’s actions during the weekend’s protests.
“The whole idea of having an independent review is to look at all the video and determine discipline for anyone who needs it, actions that should be taken additionally toward those who incited violence amongst the protesters and any changes we need in our approach to policing,” de Blasio said.
Despite that, Sunday’s news conference largely deferred to the police during a time when police actions are under tremendous scrutiny.
“If you or anyone else was inside that police vehicle surrounded by people, you would’ve had a really tough decision to make,” de Blasio said.
The mayor said his approach to the protests is “about acknowledging the pain and the injustice and the oppression of people of color and acting on it more and more every day, period, … while at the same time not dehumanizing the people who are here to protect us.”
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea tweeted Sunday morning that he is “extremely proud” of the way officers comported themselves throughout the weekend. He added in the news conference that the NYPD made more than 300 arrests on Saturday, primarily on minor offenses during protests in Harlem and on Staten Island.
“We easily could have made more, and you could make the argument that ― possibly ― we should have made more, and earlier,” Shea added.
Shea said that both protests went “overwhelmingly well.” But he blamed outbreaks of violence on a group of protesters in Harlem who he said ― without evidence ― wanted to “hijack a peaceful demonstration.”
Shea and de Blasio both blamed outside agitators for protest violence and praised the NYPD for the progress it has made to address accusations of unfair policing and violence against people of color.
The NYPD is a “fundamentally different” department today than it was when de Blasio entered office in 2013, when “stop and frisk” was the dominant policing strategy, the mayor said.
Shea pointed to data showing reductions in the number of civilian complaints and lawsuits filed against the department as proof the NYPD has improved during that period.
However de Blasio and Shea characterized the department’s progress, their comments stood in stark contrast to Saturday’s widespread imagery of journalists arrested and police vans driving into crowds of people.