A group of New York police officers violently forced a young Black man to the ground on Wednesday evening and arrested him on suspicion of smoking marijuana in a Brooklyn park and then fleeing the scene.
Bystander videos — captured and posted to Twitter by New York-based comedian Velvet — show a plainclothes officer pinning the man against a wall while waiting for backup. The man, whom ABC News identified as 20-year-old Fitzroy Gayle, can be seen holding a cellphone in one hand and nothing in the other. Both of his hands are in the air.
“What crime did I commit?” he can be heard asking the officer, who then appears to pull out a stun gun and point it at him. “What did I do? I did not do anything.”
The officer, whose name has not been released by the New York City Police Department, orders the man to stop moving.
“I don’t have a weapon on me,” the man tells the officer. “What crime did I commit? You’re supposed to [tell me.] That’s the law.”
Suddenly, three more police officers run over and force the man to the ground as he screams “Get off me!” and “Help me!” Four more officers quickly join in to help handcuff the man.
“Officer, please!” the man yells. “I am not resisting! I am not resisting!”
Gayle’s mother, Daphne Gayle, recounted her horror over the incident to ABC News.
“This traumatized him and it traumatized me,” she said. “I know the police are here to protect, but the way they were hitting him, kicking him ... he didn’t even have anything on him.”
The videos, which Velvet posted to Twitter hours after the incident, had garnered over 1 million views as of Thursday afternoon.
“I’m walking home from work and this undercover cop was holding this man,” Velvet tweeted. “The guy asked for the cop to identify himself, he ignore that. He asked what crime he commit, he ignore that too. I pulled out my phone. You can hear the guy screaming ‘I never thought it would happen to me.’”
Daphne Gayle told ABC News that when friends alerted her to the video, she feared it would end in her son dying.
“My heart was racing. I couldn’t even speak. I thought they were going to tell me he was dead,” she said, adding, “I kept looking at it and was saying to myself, ‘Is this going to end like another Eric Garner situation?’”
The NYPD confirmed that one individual was arrested and another one received a summons after officers said they observed two men “smoking a lit marijuana cigarette” at a playground in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn around 7 p.m. on Wednesday.
“As the officers approached the individuals they fled the location,” Det. Denise Moroney, a spokesperson for the NYPD, said in a statement to HuffPost. She said the incident is currently under “internal review.”
NYPD did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment about whether the officers involved have been placed on administrative leave during the review and if the man arrested was carrying a weapon.
Gayle’s lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, told The New York Times the videos show “that the era of stop and frisk is not over in New York City. The police officers involved in this brutal assault must be brought to justice.”
“Why the fuck do cops feel the need to wrestle people to the ground?” Velvet asked in a later tweet. “Especially when they are not violent and have no weapon? Y’all use unnecessary force and expect someone to just go with it. It’s a natural reaction to pull your arm when someone is pulling you for no reason.”
New York decriminalized the use of marijuana last year, downgrading the criminal penalty for the unlawful possession of weed from a misdemeanor to a fine. But NYPD officers can, and still do, arrest people for incidents related to marijuana use, including, for instance, if the suspect is deemed a threat to law enforcement.
Rebecca Kavanagh, a criminal defense attorney in New York City, told HuffPost that the man in the video did not appear to pose a threat and that the “brutality” displayed by police was illegal.
“It’s absolutely an excessive use of force,” she said of the arrest. “He’s being fully cooperative. He has his hands in the air so he’s clearly not in a position where he’s reaching for anything of a threat to the cop.”
The violent way the man was arrested is “shocking,” but it’s not out of the ordinary, Kavanagh added.
“When you work as a public defender or criminal defense attorney, people tell you all the time that this is how they were arrested,” she said. “Most of the times you don’t have videos of the arrests, but it’s so common for a teenager to say, ‘A cop held a gun to my head,’ or, ‘The cop slammed my head into concrete.’”
Though marijuana arrests have declined in recent years, Kavanagh noted that people of color are disproportionally arrested and prosecuted for weed charges. Studies have shown white people and Black people use marijuana at about the same rates.
Wednesday’s brutal arrest highlights the need for marijuana to be legalized and not just decriminalized, Kavanagh said.
“The problem with any law is not just that you are going to be prosecuted,” she said. “The problem is that the police can stop and harass you. ... If you don’t change the whole mechanism of the arrest and the enforcement part, then you’re not really doing anything to fix it.”
UPDATE: June 25 — The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office has declined prosecution in Gayle’s case, a spokesperson for the office told HuffPost on Thursday.
The decision, made on April 21, effectively dismisses the charges against Gayle, which consisted of resisting arrest and obstruction of governmental administration as well as a citation for unlawful marijuana possession.
“My hope has come true,” Rubenstein said Thursday. “The prosecutors have denied prosecution therefore there are no criminal charges pending and the criminal matter with regard to my client no longer exists.”
Rubenstein added, however, that justice had not yet been served. He said the district attorney’s office should still file criminal charges against the officers who arrested Gayle.
Asked for comment on potential criminal charges against the officers, the spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said his office doesn’t comment on investigations.
Lydia O’Connor contributed reporting.