A former NYPD commander walks through the response
In this companion piece to a photo essay by Camilo Vergara about a confrontation on a subway platform he witnessed in April 2023, former NYPD commander and Burlington, Vt., police chief Brandon del Pozo dissects the incident through a law enforcement lens.
To a New York City police officer, a man lying on the ground in a daze with blood trickling from his mouth isn’t long for the subway system. Especially if his head is on the textured yellow strip at the edge of the platform, the one that warns blind people about falling onto the tracks. That’s the scene police encountered when they responded to a call at Broadway Junction in Brooklyn on April 11. It ended with the man being led away in handcuffs. I don’t know exactly why.
After 23 years as a police officer, as a matter of instinct, there are a few things I do when I see police at work. I try to make sense of what’s happening. Is it a pending arrest? Are they dealing with a victim? Searching for someone? I ask myself what I don’t know about the situation that would explain what’s going on. I think these are good rules of thumb for anyone scrutinizing police actions after the fact. And I try to see if the officers are safe. I read their body language and their expressions, and size up the people around them. This isn’t out of a paranoid fear of the public, but because my job for decades was to help other police if they needed it.
When I see a driver standing outside his car at the roadside next to police, I wonder if his car is disabled or if they’re waiting for a drug-sniffing dog. When I see police leading a child toward a cruiser, I wonder if they have arrested a parent, rescued a parent, found a lost child or are taking a juvenile into custody. When police handcuff a bloody man who was just assaulted and is now yelling at them, it could be for many reasons, so I have a lot of questions. Context matters.
If the police decide a person needs to leave the subway, it’s not on the honor system.
A man lying there bleeding on a subway platform is a problem to be solved, for his sake and the public’s. But the problem also needs to be defined. He may be a victim of an assault, but is he a suspect as well? If he’s going to leave the subway system, can he do so safely? Will he do so voluntarily? Is he so irate the police worry he’s unstable? Will he just go looking for the people who attacked him? These problems aren’t trivial when they come in the form of a strong, agitated man who’s confronting police as he bleeds from the mouth, as was the case here. And police are expected to solve whatever problem they define; otherwise, if something dangerous or tragic happens, it will be their fault.
In any case, if the police decide a person needs to leave the subway, it’s not on the honor system. The stairs the man was headed toward not only lead to an exit, but to other train lines, and back down to the same platform at points in the station’s labyrinth.
So, yes, as the man angrily exclaimed, the police were following him as he walked off. But it was for a reason. If the act of following was enough to make him turn around and yell, then by procedure it was enough for officers to physically escort him away. Section 212-20 of the NYPD’s Patrol Guide covers ejecting people from the subway. It says that “generally, grasping the upper arm and forearm to escort the person off the system is considered using reasonable force necessary to effect the ejection,” but notes that “if the passenger’s conduct is such that it requires more force than is ordinarily needed to assist and guide the passenger out of the transit system, an arrest may be appropriate.”
All of these things can plausibly explain what happened. But we can’t be sure they do. Were they right to subdue him by force and place him in handcuffs if the only provocation was something he said, not physical resistance or threats? That’s a question we could answer, but we don’t know enough.
But I do understand why there were six cops and a sergeant present: Once a decision has been made to apprehend someone, especially if he’s big, agitated, and has just been in a fight, it’s safer to have many hands to do the job. Relying on one or two cops who could quickly grow tired and desperate — and resort to escalating force or weapons — makes for a more dangerous scenario for both officer and suspect alike.
If reasons are hard to give, or sound strained, or make it clear that somebody isn’t being treated as an equal for an arbitrary or irrelevant reason, that should be a signal to police that maybe they aren’t doing the right thing.
This uncertainty brings something to mind I wish the police did more of: give reasons. People instinctively want them, and their intuitions about which ones are fair are remarkable. The reasons why police do what they do are among the most important justifications of everyday government. I can surmise plausible reasons for what I saw in these photos because I did work like this for over two decades. But I don’t blame other people for not figuring those reasons out on their own.
If reasons are hard to give, or sound strained, or make it clear that somebody isn’t being treated as an equal for an arbitrary or irrelevant reason, that should be a signal to police that maybe they aren’t doing the right thing. There’s no reason why one of the officers — or especially the sergeant — couldn’t have taken a moment to explain why it was better to lead an agitated, bloody assault victim out of the subway in handcuffs than leave him to his own devices. Officers could have said what their plans were for him.
But police aren’t in the habit of giving reasons. Sometimes, they shouldn’t. They might be in the middle of a situation that requires every officer’s attention, or they might get ensnared in a debate with a person whose sole goal is to provoke or distract them. But most of the time, not only should police give reasons, but it should be a necessity on their list. It would do nothing but increase community trust, and each exchange would offer a test: can a reasonable person understand what the police are doing, and why? In little ways, on subways and streets, the reasons police give about why they do what they do define the contours of our civic life.