#‘Maybe they can’t breathe’: NYPD official offers tone deaf reason for cops ditching masks

#‘Maybe they can’t breathe’: NYPD official offers tone deaf reason for cops ditching masks

June 9, 2020 | 5:26pm

NYPD cops are forgoing required coronavirus masks at police brutality protests, in part, because “they can’t breathe,” First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker said Tuesday — echoing to final words of George Floyd and Eric Garner, two unarmed black men killed by police whose deaths have inspired ongoing protests.

Among the barrage of criticism that Tucker and the NYPD faced during a virtual hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety were complaints that several cops have given up on wearing masks while policing the densely-packed protests that have come to the city.

“They’re supposed to wear masks,” said Tucker, speaking in place of Commissioner Dermot Shea, who skipped the hearing.

Asked by Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) what discipline cops who don’t abide by the mandatory order could face, Tucker said it depends on their reason for going uncovered.

“It depends on why,” he said. “These questions don’t take into account the real world, the practical implications of what happens in crowd-control conditions, where officers are being hit with bricks and pipes and Molotov cocktails are being thrown at the cars.

“There may be cases where they take it off for a reason. Maybe it’s hot, maybe they can’t breathe,” added Tucker, who also happens to be black.

Among the final words of Floyd — the black man whose May 25 death after a white Minneapolis cop knelt on his neck has sparked worldwide protest — were, “I cannot breathe! I cannot breathe!”

The phrase has become a rallying cry of protesters decrying racism in policing since they were spoken with the dying breaths of Eric Garner, a black man killed in 2014 after being placed in a chokehold by a since-fired Staten Island cop.

Tucker did not explain what cases would warrant discipline, but said removing a mask for things including minor physical discomfort are “not something I would discipline an officer for.”

Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Queens) said that the apparent refusal by many cops to wear masks while cracking down on everyday New Yorkers for doing the same is symbolic of the hypocrisy fueling the unrest.

“Masks are part of the hypocrisy here that’s ignited the powder keg of resentment in the city, one that gives them immunity from following their own laws,” said Richards, the chair of the committee.

Tucker countered that some cops are still playing by the public-health rules.

“I’m not sure I agree with your blanket ‘No cops are wearing PPE.’ They were,” he said. “Maybe some weren’t.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has ripped the NYPD over complaints about a lack of masks, but little change has been documented at subsequent protests.

Richards interjected to cite photographic evidence from a demonstration near Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.

“Sir, don’t insult us,” said Richards. “Even at the protest at Barclays, there were pictures of 40 or 50 officers standing around without one mask on. So, this is the hypocrisy that the public sees and it aids and abets the argument that we all have that the NYPD believes they are above the law.”

Tucker disputed the characterization of cops thinking that they act without fear of consequences.

“I don’t think we’re above the law. I don’t think you think we’re above the law,” he said. “Things are a little bit more complicated than that.”


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