A Department of Homeless Services police officer and another unidentified officer detained a Queens man after he took a photo of one of them who wasn't wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic—cuffing him inside a small room in a hotel and issuing a summons for harassment earlier this month.
Anshuman Bhatia was walking by a Long Island City hotel a few blocks from his home when he saw a uniformed DHS cop without a mask on. He snapped a photograph, and when the officer asked why he was taking a photo, Bhatia told him officers are required to wear masks.
The officer claimed he didn't have to wear a mask since he was outside—after the two exchanged words, Bhatia walked on, only to see another officer exiting the facility without a mask. Bhatia unsuccessfully tried to take a photo of him, at which point he says the officers forced him into a small room inside the building, which was being used as a COVID-19 emergency housing shelter.
"Once I was leg-cuffed, they did, I would call, an aggressive pat down," Bhatia said in a phone interview. "They removed my belt, they removed my shoes. They did a fairly aggressive pat down of my body. They removed everything that was on me, everything in my pockets, et cetera. They went through my entire backpack. They removed very single item out of my backpack. And then lastly, they attempted to go through my phone after having removed my face mask."
Bhatia says he was held for about 45 minutes in a small room at the location, which was a hotel that had recently been converted into a transitional housing facility.
"I was never given a chance to use the restroom, to get new water, never given a chance to make a phone call, I was never given a chance to wash my hands," Bhatia said, noting officers did not wear masks inside the facility either.
"I did ask them several times what I was being charged with," Bhatia said. "At no point did they tell me anything of that nature during the entire episode."
An officer pulled his mask off to try to unlock his phone with facial recognition, and made homophobic remarks towards him as well, Bhatia says. After the encounter, they let Bhatia leave, but refuse to provide him business cards, though the issuing officer, Joseph Coye, was listed on the summons.
Bhatia's lawyer, Gideon Oliver, confirmed Bhatia was given a summons for harassment in the second degree.
The violation would mean a cop had to accuse Bhatia of intending "to harass, annoy or alarm another person" with attempts or threats of physical contact like shoving or kicking, following a person, or repeatedly doing something "which alarm[s] or seriously annoy[s] such other person and which serve[s] no legitimate purpose," the violation reads.
The second degree harassment allegation is considered a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, which could still land him up to 15 days in jail.
"We are investigating these allegations, which are very troubling," a Department of Social Services/Department of Homeless Services spokesperson said. "If substantiated, we will not hesitate to take swift disciplinary action."
Bhatia has taken to photographing cops without masks in recent months, floored by the disconnect between what officials say on television versus how government employees act on the ground. He tweets the photos out, but hasn't previously faced the confrontation he had in Long Island City; he says that usually cops just tell him to move along, walk away themselves, or put on a mask.
Officers across the city have repeatedly been seen without wearing masks, even when coming into close contact with people during arrests. On social media, there are crowd-sourcing efforts to document officers without masks. The NYPD, which is a separate law enforcement agency from the DHS officers, has dismissed the criticism, blaming the heat, long hours, and riot helmets.
"It’s hard for us as people to see Cuomo on the television, de Blasio on the television everyday speaking about how we have to wear masks, how masks are required indoors, how masks are required everywhere we go, and then them specifically saying masks are required for the police and government officials and then for us to consistently see police and government officials not wearing masks, attempting to act above the law," Bhatia said. "It’s really hard for me to process."
New Yorkers are legally permitted to record law enforcement activities when they're not in custody—like Bhatia was doing.
Recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a measure that codified the already-permitted practice as part of police reform initiatives in the wake of a historic curfew that led to mass detainments in NYC.
A rep for Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz did not respond to an inquiry about Bhatia's summons.
Bhatia simply wants accountability of some sort, and his attorney, Oliver, says litigation is possible. For now, they'll fight the harassment allegations at his court date in November.