Op-Ed: City Must Stop Racially Biased Policing — During COVID and Beyond

Mayor de Blasio's tone-deaf excuses for cops' bad behavior need to stop, too.

A cop in the East Village kneeled on a man arrested for alleged social-distancing violations. Video showed that the officer punched the man while tackling him. Photo: Daquan Owens
A cop in the East Village kneeled on a man arrested for alleged social-distancing violations. Video showed that the officer punched the man while tackling him. Photo: Daquan Owens
Wilfredo Florentino
Wilfredo Florentino

The escalating police brutality toward black and brown people in the name of “social-distancing enforcement” demands immediate action — and an end to Mayor de Blasio’s despicable denials and deflections about cops’ bad behavior.

The problem is so acute that the City Council must immediately hold an emergency hearing on social-distancing disparities and create a plan for enforcing social distancing fairly. An independent prosecutor also should focus on the racial disparities in the response to COVID-19. 

According to the NYPD itself, of the 374 summonses for social-distancing offenses from March 16 to May 5, 304 went to black and Hispanics, or 81 percent — a disproportionately high amount given that blacks and Hispanics comprise 55 percent of the population. An incident on Saturday in which a police officer beat and hurled racial epithets as he arrested a black man in the East Village for alleged social-distancing violations has sparked an outcry. Incidents in East New York and Brownsville highlight a systemic issue in poor black and brown communities that predates COVID-19.

Police interactions during COVID-19 with folks in neighborhoods throughout our city should match the sensitivity of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. We cannot accept police gingerly approaching folks who aren’t black or brown, while punching, spitting, shouting the “n-word” and belittling black and brown people for engaging in the same activities.

All this, however, seems lost on the mayor, who on Friday was insisting that the NYPD’s approach to enforcing social distancing was “overwhelmingly working.”

“You can’t do effective enforcement without the NYPD,” de Blasio said on the Brian Lehrer Show. “This one incident was troubling. But there have been thousands of interactions between civilians and police officers in recent weeks that went very well.”

The mayor’s tone-deaf comments are emblematic of city government that doesn’t prioritize action on the over-policing black and brown communities. Such police misconduct isn’t new. 

Legislation proposed in 2017 has pushed for an elected Civilian Complaint Review Board with more power to investigate and punish police misconduct. The existing CCRB is made up of appointees picked by the mayor, City Council speaker, public advocate, the NYPD, NYPD commissioner, and the City Council, and it relies on NYPD approval for disciplinary recommendations. Allowing for the voice of those affected by police misconduct to have input on the discipline of officers is critical to the assurance of true community policing.  

The city needs not only to discourage police misconduct but also to provide appropriate consequences for excessive behavior. The distinction between policing and protecting, as we learn to live in a world where we’re increasingly masked and scared, is a matter of life and death.

Mayor de Blasio and the City Council must exhibit political will and authority and do something about it.

Wilfredo Florentino (@wilfredobklyn), a candidate for City Council in East New York, is a U.S. Army veteran, life-long Brooklynite and community advocate who has served as Transportation Committee chair of Brooklyn Community Board 5 since 2014. He lives in the district with his husband, daughter and dog.