NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea defended his department’s handling of the weeks-long Black Lives Matter protests across the Big Apple last year, telling city investigators that cops did a "phenomenal job."
"I think we responded to a very difficult situation. I think the officers did a phenomenal job under extremely difficult circumstances," Shea said as he was interrogated by the Department of Investigation, according to a transcript of the exchange released through a request under the Freedom of Information Law.
The DOI interviews with Shea, as well as then-Chief of Department Terence Monahan, were conducted ahead of the agency’s scathing December report that found that the NYPD’s "inconsistent" enforcement during the May and June protests "heightened tensions" between cops and demonstrators and suppressed First Amendment rights.
The report noted that the NYPD’s crowd control tactics "produced excessive enforcement that contributed to heightened tensions."
During the grilling, Shea did admit that the police department was at times "flying in the dark" when it came to gathering intelligence surrounding the protests, but claimed that the NYPD was prepared for the mostly peaceful, but sometimes violent demonstrations that swept the city in the wake of the May 25 cop killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Shea explained that there were "outside agitators" who infiltrated and mixed in with the protestors.
When DOI Assistant Inspector General Arturo Sanchez questioned whether he believed the NYPD was "sufficiently prepared" for the protests, Shea replied, "I do."
"And that’s not to mean that it was a perfect scenario. I think we had the resources. You have to adapt. You have to learn from this. You’re — you’re asking questions on one side. The problem with this discussion is, you’re not asking questions of the other team. And maybe there’s three teams in this. Right?" he said.
Shea continued, "There’s people peacefully protesting. There’s people that wanna’ drive a wedge. And then, there’s the police department. And then, there’s a lot of other sides. So, we’re one — one part of this equation."
When asked by Sanchez what "concerns" he has heard from New Yorkers regarding the protests, Shea said, "I think that the biggest one is, you know, some of the — the violence or perceived violence by officers."
"I think that there was a couple instances, conduct by officers that was inappropriate," Shea conceded. "That was acted upon pretty quickly, I would say, probably quicker than historically has been done in the police department. Where it gets confusing is, I think that, again, there are those that are looking to sow distrust between the police and the community."
Shea added, "And they have also included, and — and publicized other incidents that way — while they may not look pretty, and they never will, frankly. They weren’t misconduct. So I think you have to take all of this into context."
However, Shea said, "I think that we have done not a perfect job by any stretch."
As of March, the Civilian Complaint Review Board police watchdog received more than 750 officer misconduct complaints stemming from the weeks of the racial justice protests across the city last year — though just a fraction have been substantiated, the head of the agency said at the time.
Earlier this year, a coalition of attorneys filed a lawsuit against the NYPD over the department’s handling of the 2020 demonstrations.
Shea told city investigators that during the protests there were close to 500 officer injuries, making for an "unprecedented" situation.
"It’s injuries sustained making an arrest," he said. "You got everything from a turned ankle, right, to an injured shoulder, to officers getting hit with bricks and bottles, to officers stabbed and shot, that occurred during these protest. Officers getting shot at during this protest, to being struck with cars, having Molotov cocktail thrown at them."
Shea went on, "So it was the — the volume. It was the breath, I mean officers making lawful arrests. And people coming up and hitting them in the heads with fire extinguishers. I mean, you name it, it happened. It — it was disgusting. And — and it was unprecedented."
The police commissioner also defended one May 30 incident during the demonstrations in which NYPD SUV was caught on camera ramming into a group of protesters in Brooklyn.
"I also don’t agree that the vehicle was been used as a use of force," Shea said. "I think that characterization is false."
"I would not categorize, based on the totality of that circumstance, the use of that car as a use of force when you look at everything that was happening in that instance," said Shea.
Additionally, Shea disputed allegations that the NYPD uses "kettling" tactics to encircle protesters.
"I was aware of the word before. But I was never aware of the word or in connection to any police department policies or procedures. It was never a term, to my knowledge, that the police department used," he said.
Meanwhile, Monahan also told city investigators that he believed the NYPD "did a good job" during the protests.
"I think we did a lot well. I think — there was no loss of life during the course of this. No buildings went up in flames. No businesses were burned out. The looters, I think we responded, we — we made sure we were able to contain it to the best of our ability," Monahan said, according to a transcript.
"For a city of 8.6 million people, I thought we did a good job in light of unprecedented type circumstances."
When asked by Sanchez what he believed the department "did poorly," Monahan said, "I’m just gonna go right back to the same thing. I think we did the best we could under circumstances. I guess I compare us to other cities around the country, watching things burned out, station houses burned. I think we did a good enough job keeping this city safe, keeping the people of the city safe."
New York Attorney General Letitia James previously charged in a court filing that Monahan "actively encouraged and participated in [NYPD’s] unlawful behavior" during the protests.
In the wake of the release of the DOI’s report, Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a vague apology over the NYPD’s handling of the demonstrations.
"I read that report and I literally expressed my feelings after I read it," de Blasio said at the time. "It makes clear that we should’ve had a better strategy, that we should’ve understood some of the realities that were happening even if they were different, that we need to communicate better."
In a video message, de Blasio said, "I look back with remorse. I wish I had done better…I want everyone to understand that. And I’m sorry I didn’t do better. And I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons. And I want our police department to do better. And I’m going to insist upon that."
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