New York City was in dire straits. The city’s death toll from the coronavirus had just crossed 20,000. Its citizens were in the grips of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Countless stores had permanently closed, and many others were barely hanging on. Then, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, igniting an uprising across New York City and the nation.
A day of citywide mass protests on May 31, a week after Floyd’s death, was followed by chaos in the night. Hundreds of people who had no apparent connection to the protests commanded the streets of Manhattan’s SoHo district, home to many high-end stores. They looted businesses, and robbed each other, with impunity. Burglar alarms blended with the roaring of getaway engines, the chaotic medley punctuated every few moments by tumbling plywood, crashing plate glass, and grating steel. Then a gunshot went off, as a 21-year-old man was shot. The police were nowhere to be seen.
A few blocks south, a group pried open the gate and rushed inside an immigrant-owned smoke shop on Canal Street that had been temporarily shuttered for the pandemic. “Ten to 15 people broke the glass,” said David Patel, an employee of the store. “They take the laptop, they take the money, they take the lotto ticket, everything — more than 25 cartons of cigarettes.” The store suffered over $75,000 in damages and lost merchandise, he said.
“Complete chaos. We had no idea what was happening. Fires were everywhere, people were looting.”
The next night, the looting grew and spread to the Bronx. “Complete chaos. We had no idea what was happening,” said Jessalyn Shen, whose family’s pawn shop on East Fordham Road was robbed. “Fires were everywhere, people were looting.” The Shens tried and failed to secure their store. Their calls to 911 went unanswered. The family dodged bricks to escape to their car and drive to safety, Shen recounted, their attackers chasing close behind in their vehicles.
The lack of a police response to the nighttime looting stood in stark contrast to the New York Police Department’s deployment of its riot squad, the Strategic Response Group, or SRG, to suppress political protests during the day.
When a peaceful march reached Manhattan’s Bryant Park earlier that night, the police were ready: The SRG formed a line to block their advance. When the protesters knelt in the street, SRG officers struck with batons and made arrests. It was one example of many where the NYPD moved swiftly against demonstrators. The previous day, police mounted a “level three mobilization” against a protest in Brooklyn and responded in well under two hours, according to city records. NYPD data reported that at least 108 people were injured by police during last summer’s unrest. The NYPD was roundly criticized by elected officials and in three government reports for using violent riot tactics against political protesters.
It was a double-dip failure in public safety: Not only did the city brutalize protesters exercising their First Amendment right to assemble, but it also stood by as throngs of nonpolitical actors rampaged the city’s storefronts. Risks to residents and property damage in and around protests paled in comparison to the widespread looting in New York, yet the police responses to nonideological rioting were markedly slower.
“There was a tremendous management failure here,” said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, referring to the NYPD. “That raises this question about their ability to handle multiple problems at once, their ability to adequately assess what’s a real threat to public order — and the possibility of political bias in the sense of misapprehending the threat posed by protests.”
Today, The Intercept is publishing emails from NYC Emergency Management, or NYCEM, which represent the real-time intelligence the mayor’s office and first response agencies had during the entire 11-day period of last summer’s civil unrest. Emergency Management, formerly called the Office of Emergency Management or OEM, coordinates interagency response to city crises. The reports provide detailed documentation of the size, location, and tenor of the protests.
The emails also provide rare documentation of the two nights of rioting that gripped Manhattan and the Bronx — revealing what the city knew and when. The reports reveal that not only was the city conscious of the looting shortly after it began just after midnight the night of May 31, but also that the police department did not mount an organized response for four hours. The documents also reveal for the first time the boundaries of the riots, as defined by the city, which was approximately 90 city blocks on the first night. Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to link the looting to the protests, there were no known political demonstrations in the vicinity of the mass looting.
The emails show a lack of attention to the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough. Emergency Management did not pick up on the looting in the Bronx on the night of June 1 for several hours — even as the agency was closely monitoring simultaneous events in Manhattan. Neither the mayor’s office nor the NYPD responded to requests for comment for this article.
“They put all of their energy into the suppression of these protests and didn’t deal with the looting.”
“The NYPD is by far the country’s largest police department. They were heavily mobilized on these days, and yet they seem incapable of a distributed response to multiple kinds of problems,” said Vitale. “They put all of their energy into the suppression of these protests and didn’t deal with the looting. So, this raises the question: Was it a management failure? Was it that they’re so focused on the threat of protest that they didn’t leave any capacity to do anything else?”
Vitale added, “One conclusion we can draw from this is that the police narrative that they are essential for producing order doesn’t seem to be consistent with their inability to properly manage demonstrations and protect property from looting.”
Less than an hour after midnight on May 31, Emergency Management issued its first report on looting “in the vicinity of: Bowling Green, Houston Street, 14 Street, Broadway and Broome Street.” It was 12:42 a.m., and the mayor’s office was aware of the riots in Manhattan.
“Large disorderly crowds continue disturbances and looting at numerous locations,” NYCEM reported at 2:10 a.m. “Extensive property damage reported throughout the borough where looting has occurred.”
The NYPD’s response was scattered and ineffective. At 3 a.m., NYCEM reported that the department had requested additional resources. According to the report, there were “multiple store fronts being looted and extensive property damage” by large crowds at East Houston Street and Bowery, as well as at the Chanel store on Spring Street, where a person was injured then transported to a hospital. Around 4 a.m., NYCEM reported “numerous storefronts being looted” at Spring Street and Broadway and that a police officer was struck by a fleeing vehicle at East Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue.
Credit: Photos: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
It was around that same time that police began establishing a perimeter around SoHo — their first effort to mount an organized response, more than three hours after NYCEM had first reported the looting. The perimeter blocked vehicles and pedestrians from entering the area between Canal Street and Houston Street, bounded by Bowery and Seventh Avenue (Varick Street): an area over 90 city blocks in size that did not even cover all of the locations that NYCEM had reported where looting occurred. NYCEM reported that the riots abated by 5 a.m.
The following day, rioting started earlier in the night, spread more widely — through Manhattan and across the Harlem River into the Bronx — and saw a dramatic increase in looting, despite a citywide curfew imposed by de Blasio. The NYCEM reports document the looting extensively but do not indicate a police response congruent to the magnitude of the widespread criminal activity. The NYCEM reports did not prescribe the riot zone’s boundaries that night.
By 10:05 p.m., “Large crowds looting storefronts” at Astor Place and Broadway; 14th Street and Sixth Avenue; and 49th Street and Broadway, according to NYCEM reports. By midnight, “Looting in multiple stores,” at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue; 41st Street and Seventh Avenue; 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue; 43rd Street and Madison Avenue; 51st Street and Eighth Avenue. By 1:45 a.m., multiple stores were being looted in SoHo, as well as at West 33 Street and Broadway. At 2:30 a.m., an NYCEM report noted, “Looting continues in the Midtown Manhattan vicinity at multiple locations” and in SoHo.
In the Bronx, Jessalyn Shen and another shop owner, who declined to be named, citing a police investigation, said looting began at stores at about 9 p.m. But it was not until 2:30 a.m. that reports of looting in the borough came through in NYCEM’s reports. “Burnside Avenue and Creston Avenue, Fordham Road: NYPD reports looting in multiple storefront locations by large crowds,” one report around that time said. By 3:20 a.m., multiple storefronts were looted at Crotona Avenue and East Tremont Avenue, while an NYPD helicopter surveyed Bay Plaza Mall. The NYCEM report concluded at 4 a.m., with “minor disturbances” persisting in the Bronx.
From May 31 to June 3, the NYPD reported 432 burglaries in Manhattan and 186 in the Bronx, according to The Intercept’s analysis of department crime data. By contrast, there were at least 276 property-related arrests during this same period, according to an analysis of NYPD arrest data by the city’s Department of Investigation, a watchdog agency. (The department’s tabulation did not distinguish between alleged property crimes committed in the course of protests versus looting.) The evening of June 1, there were 2,319 calls to 911 for commercial burglary — 46 times the usual call volume — as well as 51 ATM thefts, the Department of Investigation reported. According to internal NYPD data obtained by The Intercept, there were at least 475 burglary arrests associated with the unrest for the entire 11-day period of protests.
It was the largest mass crime event since the 1977 blackouts, when a ConEdison power outage cast the city into darkness, resulting in widespread looting and arson: the only time the city experienced multiborough riots in modern times before last summer.
An NYPD Police Academy instructor’s guide published by The Intercept last month lays out how police view the origins of disorder: “The cause of civil disorder is usually a deep seeded, underlying, societal disparity, coupled with a lack of proper response by law enforcement and other government agencies.” Last summer, the first condition was satisfied by the coronavirus, which exacerbated long-existing structural issues, like poverty and inequality, that have traditionally been linked to crime. The second condition was met by the city’s hourslong delayed response to looting. The police guide warns, “Rapid mobilization is the key to quelling disorder. The sooner personnel are mobilized … the better the chance of avoiding a full-scale riot.”
Brian Higgins, former chief of the Bergen County Police Department in New Jersey, explained the rationale underlying that training. “When a crowd starts getting to that point where they become a riot, time is of the essence. You have to act and act swiftly and you have to be very decisive,” said Higgins, an adjunct professor at John Jay College who teaches emergency incident management. “Once the crowd becomes overly violent, or extremely violent, that’s very hard to regain that ability to manage the crowd again.”
Compounding the city’s mistakes was the police department’s failure to accurately model how civil unrest unfolds. According to SRG training documents published by The Intercept in April, the NYPD’s riot squad was taught to recognize three narrow categories of protesters: the “everyday citizen,” those who apply for permits and “honor the first amendment”; the “professional” protester, who breaks minor laws and “may be paid to be arrested through donors”; and the “anarchist,” who may “challenge authority” and “destroy property.”
Remarkably, the SRG Guide and police training modules did not include any counter-looting tactics whatsoever, despite such measures being included in the guidelines of the Disorder Control Unit, the predecessor to the SRG. The Disorder Control Unit was created after the city’s failure to contain the 1991 Crown Heights riots; in 2015, early in de Blasio’s tenure, the unit’s responsibilities were folded into the work of the newly created SRG.
In addition to its failure to train on looting, the NYPD’s response was also hindered by misfocused intelligence and a breakdown in the chain of command, according to a letter to the state attorney general from the Sergeants Benevolent Association, the union representing NYPD sergeants.
“Did the Department possess intelligence relative to outside agitators, organized looting rings and/or criminal enterprises which planned to damage property and burglarize commercial establishments during the civil unrest?” asked the letter, signed by SBA President Ed Mullins. “If so, how was that information acted upon, if at all?” The letter also cites mayoral interference with NYPD command strategies and asks whether particular, previously established procedures were put in place during the specific emergency at hand.
The NYPD has updated its police training since last summer to encompass more categories of protesters. According to a report produced by the city’s Department of Investigation, the NYPD now recognizes “the non-ideological opportunist” as a fourth type of actor — a label that more accurately describes the looters. Prior to this development, the SRG did not make a distinction between politically motivated protesters and profit-driven opportunists. The result was a swift violent crackdown, not on the looters who posed a serious public safety threat, but on the people protesting against police brutality.
As the Shens were beaten in front of their store in the Bronx, the police were less than a block away. As she tried to escape, family matriarch Wendy Shen, an immigrant from Taiwan, was dragged from her car by people armed with crowbars, baseball bats, and a sledgehammer. The family called 911 repeatedly — as did the neighboring bodega, which was also looted — but no help came.
The attackers, undeterred by the cops, left Wendy Shen with a shattered femur. She would be hospitalized for two weeks, undergo three surgeries, and endure months of rehabilitation. The family lost a few million dollars from the stolen gold and jewelry, the damage to their store, and their totaled car. Their insurance company refused to cover the losses, Jessalyn Shen said, and the family shuttered the store in February.
“The police didn’t walk the one block over to help us, even though they could see what was going on.”
“It was most frustrating to be a block away from Fordham Road and see the police cars and to, like, scream for help, and have nobody come, even though they can see you, and hear you, and they just didn’t move,” Jessalyn Shen said. “The police didn’t walk the one block over to help us, even though they could see what was going on.”
Jessalyn Shen said that detectives investigating the robbery the next day told the family that officers were instructed not to leave their posts that night. While NYPD officers generally have broad discretion to act, during times of civil unrest, they are instructed to suspend their discretion and strictly follow orders, according to the NYPD Academy’s training documents.
“There might be looting two blocks away, the cops can’t respond because they were told, ‘Don’t leave this post,’” said Higgins, the former police chief. Ideally, he said, commanders should allow for certain circumstances that would permit officers to leave their post.
Higgins added that situations like what happened in the Bronx are a balancing act. “You need to have those on the ground have the ability to make decisions,” he said. “On the other hand, people on the ground don’t always see what those in the emergency operation center or command post can see.”
The NYPD’s tactics resembled what is known as the “fixed post” approach, which was previously faulted for exacerbating the Crown Heights riots. The state government’s 1993 report on Crown Heights stated “because the police were deployed at fixed posts, roving bands were able to move through the neighborhood. These roving bands committed violent acts and moved elsewhere before the police could respond.” The police commissioner at the time, Lee Brown, acknowledged that the fixed post tactics made the Crown Heights riots worse.
Another antique tactic used last summer was a throwback to the 1977 blackout: the squad car drive-by, which was documented in the 1978 book, “Blackout Looting!” by journalists Robert Curvin and Bruce Porter. In SoHo, a few minutes after the smoke shop on Canal Street was ransacked, a cop car screeched past the corner store just long enough for the looters to squeeze out the jagged glass and escape. No officer left the vehicle, and it sped off again, in the opposite direction of the fleeing rioters. Less than 10 seconds later, looters entered the smoke shop again.
Whatever the tactics that night in the Bronx, the results showed a lack of results in terms of arrests. The New York attorney general’s analysis of NYPD data noted 335 arrests in total that day, 53 of which were felonies, but showed that none of the arrests were made in the Bronx where the looting occurred.
The Shens, to their dismay, noted what appeared to be squad car drive-bys at their store — and the absence of assistance. “We had patrol cars pass by, they didn’t do anything,” she said. “They didn’t stop to help us.”
When the sun rose on the city on June 1, the severity and nature of what had happened in SoHo was still unknown to the public at large. At his press conference that morning, de Blasio mischaracterized the violence and stoked racial tensions.
“I’ll be plain, what we’re seeing certainly from the people coming out of town, primarily white people, and certainly from some of the young people that we have seen who are not from neighborhoods and go into neighborhoods and do violence,” the mayor said. “They happen to be white people, as well. I struggle to categorize their ideology because it doesn’t resemble anything that I’ve ever seen as a coherent philosophy. But I do know they want to cause destruction.”
Studies have suggested that an overwhelming majority of those present during the unrest were New Yorkers, and the city has produced no evidence to prove otherwise.
De Blasio acknowledged the rarity of the looting. “Again, that phenomenon, rare, and we saw it for the first time in any serious manner last night, did not see that in the other nights.” He attributed it to “a very small number of violent protesters.” (One of the difficulties of quantifying police activity last summer, as noted by the Department of Investigation, is the inability to categorize arrest activity in a way that would separate looting with violence incidental to protests — though the NYPD’s revised strategy would later draw a distinction between nonideological looting and political protests.)
Despite downplaying the significance of the looting that morning, de Blasio declared a curfew by executive order later that day. The next day, after another night of looting, reporters asked the mayor why looters operated with impunity. De Blasio balked at the questions. “There is no such thing as being able to loot with impunity,” he told reporters. “We do not allow looting, period.”
In response to another question, de Blasio again repeated the unfounded “out of town” claim and attributed the violence to protesters without providing any evidence.
Later in the press conference, he shifted gears and attributed some of the looting to “common criminals” and “gang members.” “Some people are just career criminals,” he said. “We saw some of them out looting in Midtown. They are small in number, but they made an impact.”
The mayor’s handling of the unrest was so poor that there was a revolt in his own ranks. Hundreds of his then-current and former staffers staged a protest against de Blasio’s handling of the protests outside City Hall on June 8, specifically slamming his defense of the NYPD. There were widespread calls for him to resign — from both sides of the aisle — and Gov. Andrew Cuomo even threatened to remove him from office the morning after the second night of mass looting.
“I sort of lost faith in the systems that are there to protect us. It is sad that when you call 911 and no one can respond.”
Despite several government investigations into the police’s response to the George Floyd protests, no published reports have investigated the city’s response to the looting. The state attorney general’s report does not address the mass looting except to acknowledge that “plundering” had occurred. The Department of Investigation report does not discuss the riots at length except to what extent that looting coincided with the protests. The city’s Law Department report reiterates the points made by the Department of Investigation.
Those two nights of riots and looting were a public safety emergency much rarer than the police brutality of protesters, but which come with their own staggering costs. The financial burden on those whose shops were looted was astronomical, without even considering the severe bodily damage that accompanied the looting, as in the case of Wendy Shen. The most ironic cost of the police and city’s failures, though, may be erosion of residents’ trust in those very institutions.
“I sort of lost faith in the systems that are there to protect us,” said Jessalyn Shen. “I don’t think that people really realize the consequences of that, because it is sad that when you call 911 and no one can respond. It’s like your last line. What do you do after that?”