Protesters, lawmakers and others testified to abusive treatment by the police at recent New York City protests during a public hearing Wednesday as part of New York Attorney General Letitia James’ fast-moving probe into police conduct at demonstrations following George Floyd’s death.
James is examining allegations of police misconduct at protests throughout the state, although the investigation is focused on New York City, a person familiar with the investigation told NBC News.
James was joined for questioning by former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and New York University law professor Barry Friedman. The three repeatedly questioned witnesses on police actions in relation to curfews imposed by New York City and whether officers sufficiently explained why they aggressively cleared and handled demonstrators or whether they delivered clear instructions beforehand.
James, who is reviewing video evidence from the protests, also called on witnesses to provide any additional video to her office.
More than a dozen protesters testified, most of them saying that police unnecessarily escalated to violence as the curfews landed and that police often did not give enough warning before launching aggressive actions. Many witnesses called for substantial police reforms in New York, up to and including defunding or abolishing law enforcement and reallocating funds elsewhere.
“The police departments say their model is to protect and serve,” U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., said, calling for legislation to ban the police use of chemical agents and to curtail a program providing departments with military-grade equipment. “But many New Yorkers are now asking who exactly are the police protecting and who are they serving.”
Full coverage of George Floyd’s death and protests around the country
Dounya Zayer, who suffered a seizure after an officer shoved her into a curb in an incident that was captured on video, testified that she has had difficulty eating and sleeping since the May 29 demonstration, in addition to nausea, back pain and concussion-related symptoms.
After she asked an officer to explain the need to push protesters farther back, Zayer said, an officer smacked her phone from her hand and, moments later, “shoved me with as much force as he could.”
“I flew out of my shoe, and I smacked my head on the concrete,” she said, adding that she had to be rushed to the hospital and that the officer “never gave me a warning, never looked back to make sure I was OK.”
That officer, Vincent D’Andraia, was suspended and charged with assault.
“There were hundreds of officers around, and not a single officer helped me,” Zayer said.
James said the incident was not representative of the NYPD as a whole, to which Zayer asked, “Where are the good cops I keep hearing of?”
The police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday’s hearing. In an interview with “NBC Nightly News,” Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said: “Did I see isolated incidents and take swift action because the actions were wrong? Absolutely.
“But when you look back at that period, I hope that history will show that [officers] acted with incredible professionalism, incredible restraint,” he added.
The hearing will continue Thursday.
The investigation came after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked James late last month to investigate NYPD conduct during the protests against racial disparities in policing and police violence inspired by Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody.
Viral videos of the protests in New York City showed police aggressively handling protesters and using substantial force against people — video the attorney general’s office is reviewing. The investigation also comes amid a flood of similar videos and allegations against police departments across the country.
Cuomo said then that James would report her findings in 30 days. Since Cuomo’s announcement of an official inquiry, the protests have continued, with more videos gaining attention online. Last week, James announced that Lynch and Friedman, who is faculty director of the New York University Law School Policing Project, would join her investigation as special advisers.
New York City imposed curfews early on in the protests — which have since been lifted — after days when some protests were followed by looting when night fell.
Buffalo was also represented among the more than 40 witnesses. A Buffalo man, John Gulick, said that although “over 90 percent of the protests have been peaceful,” others had not been. And “it’s our police officers’ jobs to maintain law and order.”
“I’m not going to justify the police abuse of any protesters, but if the protesters are not in compliance with the officers’ basic requests, something has to be done to maintain law and order,” he said.
Gulick said he approved of police reform proposals being pitched by President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Erie County legislator Jeanne Vinal, a Democrat, said police treated protesters around Buffalo worse than aggressively drunken fans leaving a Buffalo Bills game.
In New York City last week, the City Council backed a plan to trim more than $1 billion from the police department’s budget.
State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat, said Wednesday that the department’s response to the protests was “totally inappropriate.” She said she felt mismanagement extended beyond the police.
“The protests in New York were mishandled on every single level,” she said.