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.
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.”
Plainclothes officers are part of elite, roving anti-crime units. They usually do not respond to 911 calls, instead directing their own investigations. This proactive role, however, can put plainclothes officers — and the people they approach — in volatile situations. “Because you’re not wearing a uniform, if you roll up on a couple of guys, they might think they’re getting robbed, they might start shooting right away,” said Giacalone, the retired NYPD sergeant.
Some such situations are spurred by an approach from police officers without clear identification, even involving chases on foot or by car. The police department routinely publishes images of plainclothes officers next to guns and seized caches of illicit items, from a single pistol to larger collections of narcotics and weapons.
NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill told the Associated Press that plainclothes officers are necessary for following and apprehending the “small segment of the population that commits most of the crime in New York City.”
It remains unclear why the plainclothes officers who shot and killed Vassell responded to a radio call that day. “If there’s a call for help or a robbery in progress, like if a cop is calling for help, they will come as a backup to those kind of jobs,” said Giacalone. “But their role is not to take things off the radio.”
Six days after Vassel’s death, customers and staff at his former workplace, Kev’s Unique Barber Shop, argued that plainclothes officers’ proactive mentality can be deadly. Had uniformed patrol officers from the 71st Precinct arrived that day, the outcome might have been different, argued Vern, the nurse. “The blue always tell you what they’re doing,” she said. “The 71st Precinct cops knew Saheed. They knew him.”
“The undercovers are doing whatever they want to do,” said Kevin Davis, a barber at the shop. “Mostly the undercovers want to provoke you. They ride up slowly, windows down, and then say, like, ‘What are you looking at?’ And then when you say something back, they get out of the car.”
Tye Wike, a customer who was getting his head shaved, agreed. “If they’re driving in an unmarked car, they’ll say, ‘What the fuck you looking at?’ And if you say something back to them, not knowing who they are, then they act like gangsters. It’s only in minority neighborhoods that they do that.”
NYPD plainclothes officers have been involved in numerous high-profile civilian killings in recent years.
In 1999, four plainclothes officers killed an unarmed Bronx resident, Amadou Diallo. According to a witness, the officers, who mistook Diallo for another man, got out of their car, guns drawn, and, without any warning, shot him 41 times. The officers were part of the NYPD’s street crimes unit, which was disbanded largely in the fallout from Diallo’s killing. At the time of its dissolution, the unit had a staff of roughly 400 officers.
The apparent phase-out of the street crimes unit after Diallo’s killing, however, was largely semantic, according to then-NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly. “There is not a change in function,” Kelly told the New York Times in 2002. “It is a change in title because we no longer have anything called Street Crime.” Despite their controversial conduct, Kelly simply shifted the unit’s members into plainclothes anti-crime units and neighborhood detective squads. The shootings continued.
In 2006, undercover and plainclothes officers killed Sean Bell, a Queens resident, at a bachelor party; Bell was to be married that day. The officers shot at three men, including Bell, 50 times, after Bell’s car ran into an unmarked police vehicle.
In 2013, Kimani Gray, a 16-year-old Brooklyn resident, was shot by police who were working as part of a plainclothes anti-crime unit. Police claimed they had approached Gray after they saw him allegedly fidget with his waistband and shot him when he pulled out a gun. A witness testified under oath that Gray had his hands up when the cops opened fire.
In 2014, Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner using a banned chokehold, was working in plainclothes at the time of the incident.
Plainclothes officers effectively evade accountability by design: They frequently don’t wear body cameras.
Crown Heights residents who knew Vassell argue that this track record demonstrates that plainclothes officers effectively evade accountability by design. They frequently don’t wear the body cameras that are proliferating among police departments across the country. When asked about plans to equip plainclothes officers with body cameras, a spokesperson for the NYPD’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which handles civilian complaints against members of the police department, deferred the question to the department. The spokesperson added in a statement that, in interviews with officers as part of the complaint process, the board has only identified one closed case involving a plainclothes officer with body camera footage. (Civil liberties advocates have criticized the NYPD’s body camera program, which does not require officers to turn on their cameras when attempting to question civilians.)
Additionally, plainclothes officers routinely drive cars that lack unit numbers. Standard NYPD vehicles are emblazoned with a unique number and precinct or command designation. But for plainclothes cops in unmarked vehicles, a witness may only be able to gather the car’s make, model, and license plate number — none of which are as clearly marked to the uninitiated eye — in order to report allegations of police misconduct. To make matters more complicated, unmarked NYPD vehicles have been spotted with altered or obscured license plates on numerous occasions.
Residents in Crown Heights say they are skeptical that further training measures will change plainclothes and undercover officers’ behavior, which they argue emanates from the nature of the work itself.
“They act tough like they’re from the hood, like they’re from a gang,” said Vern, “but they’re only like that because they have a badge.”