A social distancing enforcement action in the East Village on Saturday resulted in three arrests, including one bystander whose violent arrest was caught on video.
Witness Daquan Owens, who took the video below, said the incident started after plainclothes officers approached a man and a woman talking outside a deli around 5:30 p.m. and ordered them to separate. But Owens says the two people were maintaining a six foot distance in accordance with rules intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.
"They were social distancing," Owens said in a telephone interview on Sunday. "The girl was standing by the phone booth, the guy was sitting on a milk crate. When the cops pulled up she said he’s not doing anything. They grabbed her and started tussling with her. Then the guy on the milk crate got mad and started yelling at police."
In a statement, NYPD spokesperson Sergeant Mary Frances O’Donnell said "a group was observed" on the corner "in violation of social distancing orders." The statement said that when officers approached the group to order them to disperse, "they observed a bag of alleged marijuana in plain view." Another video shows security camera footage of the incident starting before police arrived.
Police say Shakiem Brunson, 31, "became aggressive towards officers and resisted arrest." Ashley Serrano, 22, allegedly tried to intervene to stop police from taking Brunson into custody and was also arrested.
Owens's video begins as several plainclothes officers attempt to handcuff two people outside the deli at the northeast corner of Avenue D and East 9th Street. At roughly the 35 second mark of the video, one of the officers turns and advances on bystander Donni Wright, 33, pointing a taser at him. Owens says the officer called Wright the n-word, which can be heard at the 37 second mark, and Wright can be heard asking the officer if he used the racial epithet.
"Move the fuck back right now," the officer shouts. "Don’t flex."
O’Donnell's statement says Wright "took a fighting stance against the officer." The video shows him from behind with his hands at his side and one fist clenched.
"Donni wasn’t being aggressive, he was just talking," Owens said. "He never raised his hands or hit him. Cop just took it upon himself to start beating on him. I was standing right next to him. I could hear everything."
After punching Wright repeatedly in the head and torso, the video shows the officer kneeling on Wright's head while shouting at officers to clear the street. Another officer brings handcuffs and puts them on Wright, who does not appear to be resisting arrest.
The NYPD says the incident is under investigation, and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea told reporters on Sunday morning that he had seen the video, and that one officer has been placed on modified duty.
"It started out as a social distancing enforcement," Shea confirmed. "It's being investigated currently by our Internal Affairs Bureau."
Shea said the NYPD issued 51 summonses for social distancing violations on Saturday, in addition to these three arrests.
Wright is charged with assaulting an officer, menacing, resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration, and disorderly conduct.
Wright's mother Donna Wright said that as of Sunday morning at 10 a.m. her son was still in jail.
"This is our neighborhood for over 35 years," Ms. Wright said during a phone interview. "Donni happens to be an employee with NYCHA for ten years. He doesn’t have a criminal record. He was going to the store after work, and the officer punched him to the floor."
Brunson faces charges including criminal possession of a weapon, unlawful possession of marijuana, and resisting arrest. Serrano also faces a charge of criminal possession of a weapon, as well as resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
City Councilmember Carlina Rivera and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein are both calling for an investigation into the incident.
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a followup question about what weapons Brunson and Serrano allegedly had in their possession.
UPDATE: In a statement, the Legal Aid Society condemned the arrests and called on the NYPD to release the names of all officers involved in the incident. “City Hall and the NYPD need to seriously reconsider social distancing enforcement that leads to escalations involving the use of tasers and violent assaults,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “What is equally disturbing is that some of these officers - who were ostensibly enforcing social distancing laws - were in violation of those same very laws themselves by not wearing protecting masks, endangering the lives of all New Yorkers around them."