Coronavirus News: Video of NYPD arrest during social distancing enforcement sparks outcry

EAST VILLAGE, Manhattan (WABC) -- There is an outcry over a video of an NYPD officer taking down a bystander who was watching officers make an arrest for an apparent social distancing violation this weekend.

The incident was reported Saturday evening around 5:30 on 9th Street and Avenue D in the East Village.

As a couple was being arrested, video shows one of the officers break away from that arrest to walk up to a bystander with his taser drawn -- swearing and telling him to move back.

Video showed the plainclothes officer, who was not wearing a protective face mask, slapping 33-year-old Donni Wright in the face, punching him in the shoulder and dragging him to a sidewalk after leveling him in a crosswalk.

Police spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Frances O'Donnell said Wright "took a fighting stance against the officer" when he was ordered to disperse and was arrested on charges including assault on a police officer and resisting arrest.

The charges have been deferred pending further investigation, a Manhattan District Attorney's Office spokesperson said.

"The video was very troubling, and what I saw was absolutely unacceptable and obviously the discipline was swift by the NYPD," Mayor Bill de Blasio said. "But I want to note that that a video is more and more of a rarity, what you saw is more and more of a rarity. We still have more work to do, unquestionably, but the progress is very clear to see. Policing is changing in this city, has been changing...we're not going to have that kind of behavior in our police force."

Wright's arrest and that of two other people minutes earlier on the same block across from a public housing complex raised new questions about the police department's use of force, the role of officers in enforcing social distancing measures and inconsistency in how they're applied.

The NYPD says its Internal Affairs bureau is investigating and the officer has been placed on modified duty.

"I was not happy with what I saw," NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said. "I think we can be better than that, quite frankly. But I think you need to look at it in the context of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of encounters across the city, whether it's through routine encounters, arrests, taking guns off people without firing shots, certainly summonsing many people. I think the deescalation training that was put in place in years past and continues, it is yet another tool in the toolbox, and I think it's effective. I wish it was 100% effective, but that's not unfortunately the world we live in. But we'll learn form it, as we do from any example, continue to train, and try to get better."

The Legal Aid Society condemned the NYPD for the incident and is calling on the department to release the names of all officers involved and for their immediate discipline.

"City Hall and the NYPD need to seriously reconsider social distancing enforcement that leads to escalations involving the use of tasers and violent assaults," said Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. "What is equally disturbing is that some of these officers - who were ostensibly enforcing social distancing laws - were in violation of those same very laws themselves by not wearing protecting masks, endangering the lives of all New Yorkers around them."

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch also released a statement calling on separate enforcement for social distancing.

"The NYPD needs to get cops out of the social distancing enforcement business altogether," he said. "Nobody has a right to interfere with a police action."

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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