NEW YORK — A New York City police officer will face disciplinary charges for a violent arrest during a social distancing enforcement action that ended with him kneeling on a man’s back or neck, a technique similar to the one that led to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
Several other officers involved will also face discipline, the department said Friday, after an internal affairs investigation into the caught-on-video confrontation May 2 in Manhattan’s East Village. Police did not specify what violations the officers are alleged to have committed.
Bystander video showed plainclothes officer Francisco Garcia pulling a stun gun on 33-year-old Donni Wright and leveling him in a crosswalk, slapping him in the face and punching him in the shoulder before dragging him to a sidewalk and kneeling on his backside to handcuff him.
Garcia was stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty after the incident, which Mayor Bill de Blasio called “very troubling” and “absolutely unacceptable.” He could still face criminal charges. The Manhattan district attorney’s office said Friday that it is “conducting an independent review of this incident.” A message seeking comment was left with Garcia’s union.
The police disciplinary process sometimes involves an administrative trial, where a department employee acting as a judge hears testimony before deciding what, if any, punishment is warranted, such as a loss of vacation days up to firing. The final decision is left to the police commissioner.
Wright was treated at a hospital after his arrest and has filed a notice of claim with the city, the first step before filing a lawsuit. Prosecutors deferred charges resulting from his arrest pending further investigation. Wright’s lawyer, Sanford Rubinstein, called the disciplinary charges a “step in the right direction” and said Garcia should be fired.
The video of Wright’s arrest was one of several that spurred outrage over the city’s use of police to enforce social distancing, along with data showing people of color were subject to the vast majority of distancing-related arrests and summonses in the city.
One video showed a police officer running at a black man and throwing him to the ground for mouthing off. Another showed an officer punching a man in the head as he lay pinned to a sidewalk, unable to fight back. The city later altered its approach, telling officers to stop citing people for not wearing face coverings.
Minutes before the confrontation with Wright, video from a security camera showed officers using force to arrest a couple for allegedly failing to comply when asked to disperse. Police said officers saw that one of them had a “bag of alleged marijuana in plain view.”
Bystander video of Wright’s arrest showed Garcia helping take one of those people to the ground before turning to Wright, who was walking toward the area of that arrest from about 10 to 15 feet away. Garcia turned toward Wright and cursed at him to “(get) back right now,” according to the video. At the same time, the officer pulled up his Taser and pointed it at Wright, possibly triggering the device. Garcia continued toward Wright and eventually holstered his Taser.
It wasn’t clear what Wright was doing because he wasn’t in the frame the entire time, though just before Garcia tackled him, he stopped and stood in front of the officer with what appeared to be a clenched fist at his side. “What you flexing for? Don’t flex,” Garcia said, before grabbing Wright and wrestling him to the ground. Another officer then stepped in and helped handcuff Wright.
A police spokeswoman said shortly after the arrest that Wright “took a fighting stance against the officer” when he was ordered to disperse. Over the years, Garcia been named as a defendant in six lawsuits that the city settled for a total of $182,500, according to court records and a Legal Aid Society database.
In a case similar to the May 2 incident, Garcia and other officers allegedly threw a man to the ground and then punched and kicked him. In another, Garcia was accused of throwing a woman against a metal grate and onto a sidewalk and using a homophobic slur after she asked for his badge number.
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Michael R. Sisak, The Associated Press