Coronavirus News: 'Caravan for Justice' protests violent social distancing arrests in NYC

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Despite mounting pressure to stop using police to enforce social distancing and data showing that such arrests disproportionately affect people of color, Mayor Bill de Blasio stood by the practice on Thursday, saying: "We're not going to sideline the NYPD."

There was a bumper-to-bumper Black Lives Matter protest later Thursday night on streets that have been silent for weeks -- the "Caravan for Justice" was a deafening chorus of car horns protesting in the age of COVID-19.

Escorted by the very police they were protesting, activists drove past three Brooklyn precincts and ended up Manhattan to rally against a rise in recent arrests like Saturday in Alphabet City and Sunday in East New York.

As cops attempted to break up large groups for violating social distancing orders over the weekend, violent confrontations broke out, and they were caught on video.

Police watchdogs say the conduct shown in the videos suggests officers are using social distancing during the pandemic as a pretext to harass people of color along the lines of stop and frisk, a practice curtailed in recent years in which officers stop people on the streets and search them for weapons.

District Attorney Eric Gonzalez's office called the incidents in the videos "disturbing" and said his office is reviewing them to determine if disciplinary recommendations or criminal charges for the officers are warranted.

Assistant Chief Jeff Maddrey runs 10 precincts in Brooklyn North where police handed out 6,000 masks over the weekend. He insists his cops have done far more good than harm as they enforce previously unimaginable social distancing restrictions.

On Thursday, de Blasio bristled at suggestions that social distancing is the new Stop and Frisk.

"This is the farthest thing from that. This is addressing a pandemic, addressing the fact that lives are in danger all the time," de Blasio said.

Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said the incidents should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and that "a punch should not be assumed to be excessive force." Under their police academy training, officers are allowed to punch someone when warranted as part of an escalating progression of force, he said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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