When a team of plainclothes police officers shoved a young trans woman into an unmarked minivan during a protest in Manhattan this week, many New Yorkers expressed outrage, comparing it to the Trump administration’s controversial arrest tactics in Portland.

One witness likened it to a “kidnapping” — but the NYPD defended itself, saying its warrant squad was simply making an arrest because the woman, Nikki Stone, was wanted for allegedly damaging police cameras.

For years, the NYPD’s Warrant Section, housed within the Detective Bureau’s Fugitive Enforcement Division, has gotten far less attention than other plainclothes units, such as the recently disbanded anti-crime units.

But in one new set of data from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, made available by ProPublica, the unit draws more complaints than almost any other unit in the NYPD.

Listen to George Joseph's report on the Warrant Squad on WNYC:

The ProPublica data does not include all civilian complaints. But it does include every complaint filed against an active duty police officer with at least one substantiated complaint. That’s 12,000 complaints against 4,000 officers.

And those records show that in the last five years, the CCRB investigated more misconduct allegations against members of the Warrant Section than any other unit except for Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct in East New York.

There were 263 allegations against the Warrant Section during that period, ranging from whipping guns out on the street to property damage to using foul language.

The NYPD did not respond to Gothamist/WNYC’s request for comment on the complaint activity, or for data on the staffing levels of the department’s various units. The CCRB also declined to comment on the data, citing pending legal action.

But Joe Giacalone, a former NYPD detective sergeant who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he was not surprised by the findings. He said the Warrant Squad has many more hostile encounters with the public than other police units.

“This is the job that warrants does,” he said. “They hunt people. They try to find out where they're going to be next.”

He added, “When you're in public you don't have a right to privacy so if they have a warrant they can pick you up anywhere.”

The former detective sergeant said the stealthy tactics of using unmarked vehicles and operating in plain clothes are standard operating procedure as the unit pursues wanted suspects across the city.

“If you’re picking somebody off the street, you wanna blend in. You know, people see ‘uniformed’ and they know they have a warrant, and they can start running on you and the like,” he said. “So that’s not unusual, that’s actually part of the plan for apprehension.”

But activists and legal advocates argue that plainclothes officers jumping out of unmarked cars and running at people unnecessarily inflames encounters. The hallmarks were in fully display in the arrest of Nikki Stone, a trans woman who was participating in a protest march the evening of July 27th when four plainclothes officers grabbed her at the corner of 25th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan. She was released hours later and given a desk appearance ticket and charged with criminal mischief, making graffiti and possession of a graffiti instrument for five alleged separate incidents.

"How are members of the public supposed to react when what they see appears to be illegal activity like a kidnapping?" said Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society's Cop Accountability Project.

Wong notes that these tactics are more common in communities of color when police are executing warrants.

"You just don't see this happening on the Upper East Side, but you see it happen in Bed Stuy, Brownsville, and East New York," she said.

The ProPublica data shows that most complaints against warrant officers stem from encounters in poor, majority Black and Latino neighborhoods, mostly in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Nearly half of the civilian allegations against members of the Warrant Squad focused on residential intrusions and searches, not street arrests. Of those allegations, slightly more resulted in the officers being exonerated than in misconduct being substantiated. In other words, the review board found the conduct was lawful.

Giacalone, the former detective sergeant, said the public does not understand that many of these aggressive tactics are legal, and are carried out to apprehend suspects wherever they happen to be.

But Wong, the Legal Aid lawyer, says the high number of complaints shows that the NYPD needs to change its tactics.

"The fact that complaints are being made indicate that the public feel that these encounters are highly problematic," she said. “The NYPD is sworn to protect and serve our communities, yet they are not listening to those same communities when those complaints are being made.”


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