An Unprepared N.Y.P.D. Badly Mishandled Floyd Protests, Watchdog Says

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The New York Police Department badly mishandled protests against police brutality over the summer, engaging in “excessive enforcement” that only heightened tensions with demonstrators, according to a report from a city oversight agency released on Friday.

The 111-page report by the city’s Department of Investigation concluded that some police officers used aggressive tactics that violated the First Amendment rights of protesters during the demonstrations, which followed the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of the Minneapolis police.

Police officials were unprepared for such large and angry protests, and many patrol officers deployed to control crowds lacked adequate training, the report found. Commanders also relied too heavily on “disorder control tactics” normally used in riots and failed to strike “an appropriate balance” between public safety and civil rights.

“The response really was a failure on many levels,” Margaret Garnett, the commissioner for the Department of Investigation, said at a news conference on Friday.

More than 2,000 people were arrested at the demonstrations in New York City in May and June, most of whom were protesting peacefully. As the days of unrest continued, cellphone videos of police officers using violence to arrest and disperse demonstrators circulated online, prompting a wave of criticism.

For months, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, have defended the department’s conduct, arguing that most officers showed restraint and that incidents of abuse or brutality were limited to a small number of problematic officers.

In late May, Mr. de Blasio, a progressive Democrat who came into office on a platform of changing police practices, promised the independent review of how officers handled the demonstrations and several nights of looting.

On Friday, the mayor said he agreed with the report’s findings, even as he continued to maintain that the great majority of officers had done their jobs and respected people’s rights. He also expressed regret in an unusual videotaped statement released online shortly after the report was made public.

“I look back with remorse,” he added. “I wish I had done better. I want everyone to understand that. And I’m sorry I didn’t do better.”

The report said city investigators had uncovered systemic failures in the police response that “went beyond poor judgment or misconduct by some individual officers.”

“The department itself made a number of key errors or omissions that likely escalated tensions, and certainly contributed to both the perception and the reality that the department was suppressing rather than facilitating lawful First Amendment assembly and expression,” the report said.

For starters, the department “lacked a clearly defined strategy tailored to respond to the large-scale protests of police and policing,” the report said. Police officials were caught off-guard by the intensity and size of the protests and did not deploy enough officers in the early days of the demonstrations, the investigators found.

Police commanders also too often resorted to hard-nosed tactics and crowd control methods that “exacerbated confrontations between police and protesters, rather than de-escalating tensions.” Those methods included encircling, or “kettling,” groups of protesters, then making mass arrests and employing batons and pepper spray.

“The N.Y.P.D. use of force and crowd control tactics often failed to discriminate between lawful, peaceful protesters and unlawful actors and contributed to the perception that officers were exercising force in some cases beyond what was necessary,” the report said.

Ms. Garnett pointed to a protest in the Bronx during which police officers indiscriminately arrested dozens of people as a case study in the flaws of the department’s strategy.

The evening of June 4, police officials had gathered intelligence that suggested some people heading to a march in Mott Haven intended to commit violence. The police had intercepted a few people headed to the protest with fireworks, lighter fluid, bricks and knives. One person they believed was heading to the protest was stopped with a firearm.

Though there was no other evidence that violence was imminent, officers encircled and arrested dozens of peaceful protesters at the event, saying they had violated a curfew. The Mott Haven episode was an example, the report said, in which “limited intelligence was used to justify a disproportionate response.”

Another major shortcoming in the department’s approach, the report said, was the absence of an acknowledgment that police brutality and racism were the motivations for the demonstrations. “The fact that the target of the protests was policing itself does not appear to have factored into the department’s response strategy in any meaningful way,” it said.

In interviews with investigators, police officials acknowledged “shortcomings” in the initial deployments, but defended their decisions over all, saying they would not have done much differently, the report said.

“I don’t quite know what to make of that,” Ms. Garnett said at the news conference. “I hope the department is more self-critical and self-reflective than those statements reflect.”

The report said many patrol officers who had not been adequately trained for large protests were deployed to the streets and forced to work long shifts in unfamiliar neighborhoods with supervisors they did not know.

That left many rank-and-file patrol officers “overwhelmed and exhausted,” and created “conditions that increased the likelihood of poor judgment, unprofessional behavior, and unjustified use of force.”

Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union, said the report confirmed his contention that the department had dispatched officers to protests with no plan, strategy or support.

“Nearly 400 police officers were injured — struck with bricks, bottles, fire extinguishers and folding chairs — because of the mixed messages emanating from City Hall and Albany,” Mr. Lynch said. “No amount of new training or strategizing will help while politicians continue to undermine police officers and embolden those who create chaos on our streets.”

The report recommended, among other steps, that the Police Department create a separate unit to oversee demonstrations that would work closely with community affairs officers who are specially trained to facilitate interaction between the public and the police.

The report also said the department should re-evaluate the use of specialized units that played a central role in the protests — the Strategic Response Group and the Disorder Control Unit — which are trained to handle terrorist attacks, riots and other serious threats.

It also recommended that the department give all patrol officers more training on how to best interact with demonstrators, and put new rules in its patrol guide for policing protests that would give greater emphasis to protecting freedom of speech.

At a news conference on Friday, Mr. Shea said he would incorporate the recommendations into the department’s training and policies, calling them “logical and thoughtful.”

Arguing that the Police Department needs stronger civilian oversight, the report also called on the mayor and the City Council to create a single, independent agency to investigate the department, combining three currently separate entities — the inspector general assigned to the police, a commission on police corruption and the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

The authors said the police commissioner should appoint a senior official — a deputy commissioner — to be responsible for providing the new civilian agency the records it needs.

The Department of Investigation’s report is the third government review conducted on the summer’s demonstrations, but only the second to become public.

In July, the New York state attorney general, Letitia James, released a report calling for control of the New York Police Department to be stripped from the mayor and turned over to an independent city commission.

The Police Department conducted its own inquiry into its response to the protests and has increased training for officers as a result. After initially saying the report would be made public, however, the department’s top managers so far have declined to release it.

Jeffery C. Mays, Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Ashley Southall contributed reporting.

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