A New York City police officer has been suspended without pay while the department investigates an incident caught on camera on Tuesday that appears to show an officer repeatedly punching a girl as he attempts to break up a fight near a middle school on Staten Island.
The NYPD has shared few details about what transpired in a crowd of young people near I.S. 51 Edwin Markham in Port Richmond. Spokesperson Julian Phillips said in an email that two uniformed officers assigned to a school dismissal post had seen a fight break out between multiple girls around 2:40 p.m. at Willowbrook Road and Forest Avenue, about a block from the school. He said an officer struck a 14-year-old girl multiple times after she reached for the officer’s handcuffs and struck him. Phillips added that the 14-year-old was taken into custody, treated at a local hospital and then released.
Police did not respond to multiple requests to share the officer’s name and shield number, but Phillips did confirm that the Internal Affairs Bureau had launched an investigation into his actions and that he has been with the department for 14 years. Though he and the other officers were stationed near a school, the mayor has said that they are not school safety agents.
The eight-second video appears to show an officer holding a girl with one hand and punching her with the other while she is doubled over, backing away and swinging her left arm back at him. Two other officers are in the frame, though their actions are mostly obscured by the crowd. A group of young people surrounds them, some recording on cell phones and screaming. One boy tries to pull the girl away.
“He’s hitting her? He’s hitting her?” one girl can be heard yelling. “What the f–k?”
“You can’t do that!” another person shouts.
Mayor Eric Adams said he was “not happy” with what he saw in the video during an unrelated press conference on Wednesday. He said that he planned to watch body camera footage of the incident and that the Internal Affairs Bureau would conduct a “thorough investigation to determine exactly what happened.”
But the mayor also said that he didn’t think the violent interaction would erode the relationship between police and New Yorkers, who he said trust their police department.
“I hope that we get away from the place that the numerical minority that does something incorrect is a reflection of the professionals in this city,” Adams said. “And people know the countless number of police officers run toward danger, not away from danger, and we should be proud of having a police department with the level of restraint that they show.”
The Police Benevolent Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, urged investigators to consider all of the circumstances, not just the video.
“The police officers involved are entitled to due process, not summary judgment based on a few seconds of video,” PBA President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement. “What is clear at this point is that these police officers were trying to break up a violent altercation when they themselves were assaulted.”
But police reform advocates cited the video as further evidence that police lack proper training to de-escalate tense situations, especially when young people are involved.
‘It’s not really their job’
“We don’t know everything that happened before this video, but it’s hard to imagine how a police officer jumping in and punching a teenager is making any New Yorker safer,” said Johanna Miller, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Education Policy Center.
Miller noted that the parts of the brain that help to regulate emotions and make rational decisions aren’t developed in young people. While professionals who are trained to work with kids know how to calm them down, she said, officers are typically not equipped to de-escalate heated situations with young people.
“Police officers, including members of the school safety division who work in schools full time, have none of that training and often see teenagers as dangerous or as threatening and not as children,” Miller said. “This is particularly true for young people of color, who tend to be seen as older and more threatening than white teenagers.”
A local violence interruption group questioned why police were called in to handle the situation, instead of them.
“It’s really not their job,” said Mike Perry, program manager for True2Life, an organization that works to reduce violence on Staten Island. “You need to have the community in the schools. You don’t need to send in the NYPD to break up a fight.”
Perry, who said he has been in touch with the family of the girl who was assaulted, said True2Life is supposed to be stationed at the middle school just feet from where the fight occurred, as part of the city’s new Project Pivot program, which is sending community groups into 138 schools where students are most at risk of violence to provide mentoring and other violence prevention programming. But the city’s bureaucratic process has taken longer than expected, he said, and the group doesn’t expect to be in the school for at least a few more weeks.
“Lives hang in the balance when that process is not expedited,” Perry said. “Clearly a situation like yesterday could have been avoided if the processes were much faster.”
The Department of Education referred questions about Project Pivot to the mayor’s office, which did not immediately comment.
Perry said he hopes that Project Pivot will shift more of the responsibility to community groups to support young people and prevent them from resorting to violence — once it’s up and running. He said people who are from the area and know the kids in the schools will be better equipped to relate to them “with sensitivity and with understanding.”
“Those of us who are parents, put yourself in our shoes and you can only imagine what you would feel if that was our child,” said Perry. “The village that we come from, that is our child.”