NEW YORK — They were held for more than a day in crowded New York City jail cells, some without masks. Cheerios and food wrappers littered the floor. In one holding pen, detainees spread tissue over a clogged toilet to try to reduce the stench emanating from it.
In the week since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, hundreds of people arrested in New York City — some while looting, others while clashing with police during largely peaceful demonstrations — have been detained in cramped cells for more than 24 hours, their health at risk in the midst of a pandemic, defense lawyers said.
On Thursday morning, more than 380 people — waiting either in cells at Police Headquarters, in local precincts and in a Manhattan jail — had yet to be brought before a judge. Nearly 70% of them had been waiting for more than 24 hours, including one defendant who had been waiting 80 hours, according to court officials and the Legal Aid Society.
Police, prosecutors and court officials say they are doing what they can to process people quickly, but they are facing logistical hurdles because of the coronavirus shutdown and an unusually high number of arrests.
But public defenders say prolonged detention of defendants violates state law and their constitutional rights. They say the police have clogged up the system by putting people through the courts who should have instead received summonses for minor offenses during the protests.
“Rather than allowing people to protest peacefully, the NYPD are violently arresting them and holding them for hours,” Stan Germán, executive director of New York County Defender Services, said in a statement. “They are unlawfully and unnecessarily sending people through the criminal arraignment process, where they face tight quarters and exposure to the coronavirus.”
Lawyers for the city deny that protesters are punitively being held longer than necessary. Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, have repeatedly defended the actions of rank-and file police, saying they have shown tremendous restraint in dealing with protesters under trying circumstances.
While the protests have been mostly peaceful, Shea and de Blasio have said some people have tried to incite violence against the police, throwing bricks and bottles, while others have taken advantage of the unrest to loot stores.
So far, more than 2,000 people have been arrested on charges such as disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, unlawful assembly, assault on a police officer and burglary, according to police and prosecutors. Most were released with a desk appearance ticket, which requires them to return to court at a later date.
From Sunday to Tuesday, about 500 of those people have been charged with looting shops, mostly in Manhattan, where bands of people have broken into stores throughout SoHo and the central business district, including Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square and Bloomingdale’s on Third Avenue. Many stores on Fordham Road in the Bronx were also ransacked.
The Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit this week accusing the Police Department of illegally detaining people who had not seen a judge after waiting three days, which violates a state law requiring that a person be arraigned within 24 hours of an arrest.
On Thursday, Justice James M. Burke of state Supreme Court in Manhattan denied Legal Aid’s demand that the city release people held for more than a day, noting the Police Department was coping with widespread civil unrest in the middle of a pandemic. “It is a crisis within a crisis,” Burke said. “All writs are denied.”
Court officials blamed the delay on the police and on prosecutors, who they say have been slow to complete necessary paperwork.
“To docket the case and arraign someone, the court needs the arrest paperwork to be processed by the police and in conjunction with the district attorney to write up the criminal complaint,” Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said in a statement Wednesday. “It is a process that is taking a far longer time frame than is customary.”
One protester, Khelon Robinson-Fraser, 21, of Atlanta, said he heard officers threaten to delay processing several people’s paperwork if they asked too many questions or became fussy. “‘We can keep you for however long we want,’” he recalled an officer tell one detainee. “It was just pretty horrible.”
But Patricia Miller, chief of the city’s Special Federal Litigation Division, denied that officers were retaliating against protesters and said that the agency was doing the best it could given the circumstances. She called the allegations “exceptionally unfair.”
“The NYPD, as well as the entire criminal court system, is working within the confines of a pandemic and is now suddenly called upon not only to secure orderly protesting but also to address rioters who are committing burglaries, destroying private property and assaulting fellow New Yorkers,” Miller said.
During the court hearing on Legal Aid’s request, Janine Gilbert, an assistant deputy police commissioner, acknowledged that social distancing has been impossible in city lockups with so many arrests. She said, for instance, it was common for up to two dozen people to be held for hours on buses before being taken to be booked.
“And I might note that these protesters while they are out on the street are not social distancing either,” she said. She said each detainee was given a mask and offered food while in the holding pen.
The court system, which had already been disrupted by the coronavirus, has been largely virtual since March. Since then, judges, defense lawyers and prosecutors have conducted arraignments from their homes over video chat systems.
But the recent flood of arrests has added even more pressure, officials said.
To handle the backlog, court officials added a second virtual arraignment part and an overnight arraignment session from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m., Chalfen said. Most of the people awaiting arraignment were charged with burglary, and in most cases must be released without bail under the state’s new bail law, Chalfen said.
De Blasio initially blamed the widespread looting and instances of violence on out-of-towners and anarchists, but in recent days he and his police commissioner acknowledged that most of the people accused of breaking into stores were city residents using the protests as cover. Some had even used cars and trucks — in one instance a U-Haul truck — to transport stolen merchandise, police said.
De Blasio said the protests have been largely peaceful but added that there was “an organized group of criminals doing things like looting for pure financial gain, pure criminal gain, nothing to do with protests whatsoever.”
At least one-quarter of the people arrested have been accused of burglary, which is the charge brought against looters, according to preliminary figures from the police.
As he left the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building, Marcos Parker, 19, said he had been detained on a burglary charge on Monday and was not released until Wednesday.
“I won’t lie. I was looting,” he said. He said he had stolen merchandise because he had lost his job. “It was really this coronavirus,” he said. “I was working before corona.”
Nearby, a 26-year-old woman, who requested anonymity, said her boyfriend waited two days to see a judge after he was charged with looting.
But others have faced charges of assaulting a police officer. One 26-year-old was accused of throwing a garbage can into a crowd, striking an officer. A 33-year-old man was charged with assault; according to the criminal complaint, he punched an officer in the face.
Prosecutors in Brooklyn and Manhattan say they are investigating several allegations of police using unnecessary force, including an instance — captured on video — when two police SUVs drove into a crowd of protesters blocking a street in Brooklyn and a separate incident in which a Wall Street Journal reporter says an officer assaulted him in Manhattan.
Federal prosecutors have brought charges against two sisters from the Catskills region who investigators say tried to firebomb a police vehicle with officers inside it.
Some of the protesters, who were released this week after long detentions, said the police officers were the aggressors.
Clarence Johnson, a 24-year-old chef from Harlem, said he and his brother were protesting on 34th Street in Manhattan on Monday when officers tackled them, used pepper spray on them and then hit them with batons. Johnson said he had bruising on his hip and that his brother’s face was swollen.
The officers had told them to go home, he said, but then had boxed them in on the street before arresting them on charges of unlawful assembly.
Johnson said he waited 15 hours to be arraigned. By Wednesday evening, his brother still had not appeared before a judge. Johnson was held in a cell with about 30 people spaced only about 2 feet apart, with a clogged toilet, and no soap. Some detainees were coughing and others appeared sickly, he said.
Johnson said he had experienced many disturbing encounters with the police while growing up in New York City. He was stopped frequently by them as a teenager and had stared down the barrel of an officer’s gun more than once. For him, the protests against police brutality were extremely personal.
“I have a daughter, a little girl, that’s going to have to grow up in this world,” Johnson said. “I just want it to be how it’s supposed to be. I shouldn’t have to fear the police.”
Another protester, Dorthley Beaval, 20, a nursing student from Long Island, emerged from the courthouse on Wednesday evening with his left arm in a dark blue sling. The left side of his face was bruised.
He said a police officer picked him up, slammed him first against a wall and then face down on the ground. The officer then began punching him repeatedly until another officer stopped him, he said. One tooth had been loosened, and he coughed up blood, he said. He spent two days in a cell waiting to see a judge. He was charged with burglary and criminal mischief.
“I was there peacefully protesting because of this type of behavior,” he said. That night he had held a sign that read “For My Future Black Children.”