Andre Velasquez arrived at Rockaway Beach on Friday afternoon hoping to beat the sweltering heat with a cool swim in the open ocean.
Instead, he was escorted from the sand in handcuffs, accused of defying city rules prohibiting bathing when lifeguards are off duty.
The unusual arrest, made by officers with the New York City Parks Department, has prompted allegations of excessive force, while raising questions about how the city should monitor its waterfront during a summer that has seen beach closures, lifeguard shortages, and a spate of drownings.
Velasquez, a 33-year-old native of Briarwood, Queens, said he was wading off Beach 97th Street shortly before 7 p.m. on Friday when he saw at least half a dozen Parks Department officers calling to him from the sand.
When he exited the water, he was told to present his driver's license so the officers could write him a summons. He initially refused, maintaining that he hadn’t done anything wrong. In response, Velasquez said, the officers threw him to the ground and placed him in handcuffs.
“They all bombarded me at one time. I was like, ‘Wait, am I not allowed to swim in the ocean?’” Velasquez, who runs a dog-walking business, told Gothamist. “These people tackled me to the ground. I was literally screaming. They had my mouth under the water. It was baffling and traumatizing.”
A spokesperson for the Parks Department defended the enforcement action, calling the after-hours swim “extremely dangerous” given the lack of supervision. The city’s lifeguards leave their chairs at 6 p.m., marking the official end of legal swimming hours.
Most people found swimming after 6 p.m. are instructed to leave without issue – but arrests are made in “rare circumstances,” according to the spokesperson, Dan Kastanis. In this case, Kastanis said the swimmer was “non-compliant” for 30 minutes (Velasquez disputes this, saying he came in almost immediately after hearing the whistle).
“Our [Parks Enforcement Patrol] staff engage with hundreds of compliant beachgoers daily, through education we remove them from sections of beach where swimming is prohibited without incident every day,” Kastanis said in an email. “Unfortunately, due to non-compliance, in this incident an arrest was warranted.”
Velasquez said he was placed in a police van, then driven to the nearby 100th Precinct, where he was handcuffed to a bench for close to an hour. He left with a criminal summons for disorderly conduct and failure to comply with a peace officer’s directive.
An NYPD spokesperson denied a request for further information, directing inquiries to the city’s Parks Department.
The Parks Department has faced scrutiny throughout the summer for its oversight of the city’s beaches, where a lack of lifeguards and ongoing resiliency work has led to a string of beach closures.
In June, two young people drowned within minutes of each other off a popular stretch of Rockaway Beach. One of the fatalities came during hours when lifeguards would normally be on staff. Following their deaths, a spokesperson for the Parks Department said the agency would assign additional officers to patrol the unguarded shoreline.
But the rules that govern swimming off local beaches are far from clear-cut. Since 2017, New York’s state beaches have allowed swimming at unguarded beaches. On the other side of the Rockaway peninsula, at the federally-managed Fort Tilden, swimming is technically prohibited – though beach-goers frequently enter at their own risk.
At Rockaway Beach, which is overseen by the city, swimmers have long returned to the waters after lifeguards leave their posts. Nearly all of the drownings in recent years have come while lifeguards were off duty, with the victims overwhelmingly young people.
For his part, Velasquez maintained that he is a capable swimmer, who was only up to his waist at the time of his confrontation. He said he offered to leave the water once he was told about the no-swimming rule and also agreed to present his driver's license as he was being dragged away in handcuffs.
“They wanted this to be a spectacle. It felt like a show of force,” he said. “It doesn't feel like any of that should've happened because I was swimming at the beach.”
The Queens native, who is due in court later this month, said he likely wouldn’t be returning to his home borough’s beach anytime soon.
“I don't want to go there ever again, honestly.”