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NYPD Coronavirus and Protest Finest Messages
Internal mass messages provide a time capsule look at the early pandemic, and document that maskless officers at protests violated department policy
As the nation's first and unsurpassed epicenter of the virus, what goes without saying is that it was a unique plague of death upon Gotham. Though we can measure an undercount of the death – at least 35 thousand so far – the price exacted on New York City society will not be understood for years.
Crucial to that understanding will be primary source documentation of the city's response. Today we analyze some of the police department's operations orders regarding the virus and compare against the documented and anecdotal observations from last summer. Despite their cavalier presentation, New York's Finest were not immune to the virus, 57 members of service having fallen as of Monday.
Operations Order 35 defines the NYPD's policy in response to Governor Andrew Cuomo's mask mandate executive order. The accompanying "Finest Messages," an internal NYPD messaging system similar to a mailing list, are a time capsule of the early pandemic through to the mass unrest which signified a turning point in the lockdown. Seventy-five days after the shutdown began, the city devolved into two nights of riots, prompting the mayor to declare a curfew, the city's first since World War II.
But it started in March, fresh off the heels of that new-decade optimism. That late period we will never have back.
The first mention of "Corona Virus" in the Finest Messages is quaint in hindsight. On March 12, the day Broadway shutdown, the chief of department ordered that "when feasible" pregnant members of the service should be assigned positions with limited exposure to the public. The notice also advised the department take general precautions against "common infections" and that desk surfaces and telephones should be disinfected regularly. Four days later schools were closed. The following day bars and restaurants were prohibited. Then on March 22 the state imposed the general shutdown of non-essential businesses. Four days later, the first authoritative command came from NYPD for supervisors to ensure that all officers be equipped with PPE at roll call. The pandemic had arrived.
On April 3, a Finest Message instructed asymptomatic officers to wear masks when in patrol cars, or when within six feet proximity of others. Officers without masks should notify their supervisor, who will coordinate with the NYPD quartermaster to keep masks stocked. By this time there was already a run on masks. Earlier in March, the NYPD attempted to commandeer half a million N-95 face masks meant for hospitals from a government warehouse, leading to a public spat between the department and the city’s health commissioner. She would resign in August from the political fallout.
By April 14, the NYPD issued Operation Order 35, officially mandating face masks for all officers, coinciding with the governor's executive order the next day. The operations order also instructed officers to enforce the mask mandate upon businesses and their employees. The following day officers were distributed "hospital patrol kits" including biohazard bags and impermeable gowns. The day after that, the commissioner ordered all members of service to wear black mourning bands across their badges, "and across your hearts," in memorial of the 27 NYPD “brothers and sisters” who had died by that time – the department’s COVID-19 casualties had just exceeded that of 9/11, which was 23. The order instructed all flags to be flown at half mast.
By this time, the virus had made a considerable impact on daily NYPD operations. At the peak of disruption, 19 percent of the force was out sick at once. Enforcement slowed. Commercial burglary rates more than doubled. Murder and auto theft also increased significantly. So did anti-Asian hate crimes. The city was in its deepest moment of the Coronavirus crisis. And right around the corner a new national crisis laid in wait.
By May 10, a Finest Message acknowledged that fewer officers were reporting sick. There were 112 recorded city deaths that day, down from a peak of 810 deaths a month earlier, April 8. As citizens began to leave their homes again, the shutdown remained in place, and the social and economic misfortune with it. Then two weeks later, on May 25, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, and all Hell broke loose.
Riots and protests broke out across the entire nation – nothing like it since 1968. The first protests in New York City began three days after Floyd's death. By the fourth and fifth nights of the New York protests, the disorder turned into full-blown riots across Manhattan and the Bronx, resulting in the looting of over 600 businesses, the senseless criminal brutality of shopkeepers, and the senseless police brutality of non-looting protesters. After the first night of riots, a Finest Message on June 1 instructed officers to enforce a mayoral curfew. After the district attorneys announced they would not prosecute unlawful assembly charges, a June 5 Finest Message instructed officers that they would continue to make those arrests.
The city recognizes what happened last summer in the context of an 11-day period of social disorder, during which time the NYPD was under intense criticism for its violent treatment of political protesters. Another important criticism was the apparent abandonment by the department of its mask mandate. Many observers and multiple government reports document that during the civil unrest it appeared that most responding officers were not masked. But Operations Order 35 was still in effect. For the NYPD's earlier apparent emphasis on masking, it now appeared that officers intentionally went maskless. With the nation in the grips of an intense and violent wave of anti-police protest, heightening already heightened political divisions between the right and the left – the Trump and the anti-Trump – it seemed to many that masks became a political casualty, in opposition to all sense. To many at this moment, the NYPD forgoing masks at the protests signified a contempt for society.
A Finest Message from June 11, four days after the 11-day period of unrest, makes the department mask mandate clear. "All members of the service are reminded that … face masks must be worn by all members of the service when in direct contact with the public." And yet inexplicably, this fact defied what was seen during the protests. Was there a PPE shortage? Was there not enough time to inspect and prepare officers responding to the protests? Was it actually political animus? I don't have the evidence to say.
But masks weren’t the only equipment that the officers lacked. Many officers were deployed to the protests without even basic riot gear. Two police unions criticized the lack of protective gear, claiming that it exacerbated police violence by placing officers in needless danger. Was this a tactical error? A gear shortage? Intentional?
After the department’s monumental failure to contain the riots, a Finest Message from July 2 instructed all executives ranked captain or higher to complete a mandatory four-hour disorder control training session at the Police Academy within two weeks.
Much is still unanswered about what happened last summer. It is a mystery that will continue to unravel. Stay tuned tomorrow for new documents and analysis of the foggy and infamous 11 days in New York City, as NYPD Docs Clearinghouse week continues.
Illustration by John Bolger. Fair use imagery from The Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation, NYPD, and Microsoft.