The police rioted, and there was a lot of video

BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty ImagesNew York City police officers arresting protesters during a May 30 demonstration in Brooklyn, New York, against the killing days earlier of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
  • During the first weeks of the George Floyd-inspired protests against police brutality and racism, many police officers rioted, which in itself justified the protests.
  • Now a New York Times investigation has collected over 60 videos of NYPD officers engaging in what looks like excessive force, mostly on peaceful protesters.
  • These videos show a systemic problem that can’t be pinned on a “few bad apples” or exclusively dismissed as “out of context.”
  • To dismiss concerns over the NYPD’s use of force is to live in a state of willful denial.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

George Floyd’s excruciating killing by the Minneapolis police took place in public, in broad daylight, in the presence of multiple officers. It was also captured on camera, inspiring the question, “Would these cops have been prosecuted if there wasn’t a video?”

Floyd’s death inspired some of the largest, most spontaneous protests the US has ever seen. The late-May and early-June demonstrations against police brutality and racism were overwhelmingly peaceful, though some were marred by rioters using the cover of the protests as an opportunity to destroy and steal property.

But it was also evident that the police did their own share of rioting. I argued at the time that the violent response from the police itself justified the protests.

Now a New York Times investigation into the weeks of heated protest has uncovered over 60 videos of New York City Police Department officers engaging in what looks like excessive force. For all the protestations and gaslighting by city officials and police unions, these videos make plain that the NYPD has a serious problem. And now is the time to address it head on.

Inexcusable uses of force, caught on camera

Brief video clips don’t always tell the whole tale, but many of these videos leave little doubt that NYPD officers were wildly out of line.

One officer is seen in a tough-to-take-out-of-context 48-second clip appearing to go out of his way to look for the easiest targets to beat up.

In the clip, he shoves a woman so hard she launches into a bicycle several feet away before she lands hard on the pavement. Nightstick in hand, he lurches around for the next confrontation before shoving a bicyclist, then turning around, grabbing a man from behind and body slamming him onto the street.

Most of the other clips are no less disturbing.

They show cops pepper-spraying protesters for speaking. They show groups of officers bulldozing through peaceful crowds and swinging wildly at random. They show police officers beating people who had their hands up, were walking away, or were already on the ground.

There’s even video of officers beating people already in custody, as unjustifiable an act of violence as an armed agent of the state can commit. There’s also video of assaults being led by “white shirts” – who are senior officers.

Again, this is just New York, and these are just the ones caught on video obtained by The Times.

Cancel the police unions

A week after the protests started, Mayor Bill de Blasio inexplicably praised the NYPD for its restraint and added that he had not seen any video of officers acting inappropriately in their response to the protests.

But even for his toadying, the cops still hate de Blasio and are mad as hell all around. One NYPD union leaked a mug shot of de Blasio’s daughter, Chiara, who was arrested during one of the protests.

Police unions in the city have also been adamant in their denials that NYPD cops were out of line during the protests and have even attempted to paint themselves as victims of a smear campaign.

The Police Benevolent Association’s president, Mike O’ Meara, said: “Our legislators are failing us. Our press is vilifying us. Stop treating us like animals and thugs and start treating us with some respect. That’s what we’re here today to say. We’ve been vilified. It’s disgusting.”

Two unions and a senior officer also helped concoct a fictitious story about officers being intentionally poisoned at a Shake Shack, presumably to further a “cops under siege” narrative, which turned out to be effective. And the unions continue to resist any attempts at reform as a matter of course.

To be sure, being a police officer is an unenviable job right now, especially if you’re one of the good ones.

Slogans like “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bad) and “Defund the Police” are unlikely to do wonders for the morale of an honest, working-class cop. And in situations in which protests have turned violent and blatant looting has taken place, good cops are put into an impossible situation, as any use of force in an out-of-context video clip can look like excessive force.

That’s something that should be considered about the videos rounded up by The Times, as well. It’s possible that in some of these situations, the police were attacked before the camera started rolling or genuinely feared for their safety. But in the vast majority of them, the use of force simply seems unjustifiable.

The NYPD’s patrol guide says officers must assess the “immediacy of the perceived threat or harm to the subject, members of the service, and or/bystanders” and even then must use “only the reasonable force necessary to gain control or custody of a subject.”

The video of the officer viciously assaulting three people who were no threat to anyone in less than a minute’s time depicts a flagrant violation of the NYPD’s policies. Period. Full stop.

Any argument that places a “cops are all heroes” or “cops are all bad” binary is not serious. But public officials and police unions – particularly the NYPD’s – aren’t serving the public by protecting abusive officers, nor are they effectively serving their law-abiding membership.

These videos are not an indictment of police as a profession, but they do serve a public purpose. Just as the horrific video of Floyd’s death left no doubt in people’s minds as to what happened, these videos show a systemic problem that can’t be pinned on a “few bad apples” or exclusively dismissed as “out of context.” To dismiss concerns over the NYPD’s use of force is to live in a state of willful denial.

Institutions should never grow so politically powerful that they become immune from the law, particularly when they are tasked with enforcing the law through force.

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