Plainclothes NYPD Cops Are Involved in a Staggering Number of Killings

AT AROUND 4:41 P.M. on April 4, Saheed Vassell was shot and killed on the southwest corner of Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The first police officers on the scene — and the ones who appeared to fire the first shots — were three members of an anti-crime unit dressed in plainclothes and one uniformed officer from another unit. Responding to 911 calls about a man with a gun, they had arrived in a black Chevrolet Impala.

Footage from the moments after the shooting, initially obtained by the Village Voice, shows that at least nine plainclothes officers were on the scene. Several of the plainclothes cops were taking aggressive action to clear the area of onlookers. One of the officers in the video is wearing a hat emblazoned with a large white skull. Another, who pushes his way through the intersection with sirens blaring, wears a shirt with the symbol of the vigilante comic book character, the Punisher.

The involvement of plainclothes police officers in Vassell’s death speaks to a dynamic of police violence in New York that frequently goes unmentioned: Despite being only a small fraction of the force, many police killings are carried out by on-duty officers who are not wearing uniforms.

An analysis by The Intercept, using data from the Fatal Encounters project, found that plainclothes cops play a role in such killings disproportionate to their relatively small numbers among the NYPD’s ranks. Plainclothes police have been involved in nearly a third of all fatal shooting incidents recorded since 2000, according to The Intercept study.

There have been at least 174 fatal shootings by on-duty New York City police officers since 2000, according to an analysis of data from Fatal Encounters, a website that tracks deaths involving police. Plainclothes or undercover police were involved in 54 of those deaths, while uniformed police were involved in 41 fatalities. Eleven cases involved both uniformed and plainclothes cops. (Three of the shootings were self-inflicted.)

The analysis of the killings used cases in which the operational status of officers involved — whether they were uniformed or plainclothes — was originally reported or determined through subsequent review by The Intercept. In 68 cases, The Intercept’s review of public information and reporting could not determine if the officers were in uniform at the time of the shooting.

The NYPD did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment on exactly how the department defines its plainclothes and undercover work; NYPD reports refer to both as plainclothes. In shooting incidents reviewed for The Intercept’s analysis, press reports referred to officers wearing both casual clothes or specific disguises as either “plainclothes” or “undercover” officers. Because the NYPD does not release comprehensive data about shooting incidents, The Intercept’s analysis relied on Fatal Encounters, which uses open-source information to track police shootings but acknowledges that it does not supply a complete data set.

“The undercovers think they have the authority to do anything they want.”
The NYPD does not disclose how many of its roughly 20,000 officers operate in its plainclothes units. But Joe Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant and adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that a typical precinct will have a four-person plainclothes team for each tour of duty, or shift. The police service is composed of around 77 precincts across the city, with each day divided into three tours, so the number of plainclothes police working out of precincts on a given day is likely around 900 at a minimum. If officers working for the 20 or so transit, housing, and special-assignment commands work in plainclothes at the same rates as the precincts — about four per shift per command — the estimated number of plainclothes cops working on any given day would jump to approximately 1,200.

In other words, plainclothes officers, estimated to be around around 6 percent of the force, account for 31 percent of all fatal shooting incidents.

A 2016 NYPD report found that nearly half of officers involved in “adversarial conflicts” — “when an officer intentionally discharges his or her firearm during a confrontation with a subject,” according to the NYPD — were in plainclothes. The same report also found that specialty units, which include anti-crime teams, were involved in about one-third of incidents in which firearms were discharged in these encounters. The report attributes this to “the role of specialty units in proactively pursuing violent criminals.”

Locals in Crown Heights have taken note of this dynamic. “You’ll never see a blue suit cop doing crazy shit like that,” said Vern, a 21-year-old nurse, who only gave her first name. Sitting in the barbershop where Vassell used to work nearly a week after the killing, Vern said, “The undercovers think they have the authority to do anything they want. They hunt motherfuckers — like us black people — down.”

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Filming Cops
Filming Cops 5618 posts

Filming Cops was started in 2010 as a conglomerative blogging service documenting police abuse. The aim isn’t to demonize the natural concept of security provision as such, but to highlight specific cases of State-monopolized police brutality that are otherwise ignored by traditional media outlets.

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