Bronx Defenders Letter to City Council Re: NYPD Police Property Seizure During the Recent Black Lives Matter Protests and COVID-19

Sent Via Email 

July 8, 2020 

Donovan J. Richards, Chair Committee on Public Safety New York City Council 250 Broadway New York, NY 10007 

Re: NYPD Police Property Seizure During the Recent Black Lives Matter Protests and COVID-19 

Dear Chairman Richards and Public Safety Committee Members: 

The protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd have sparked renewed debate around the country and in New York City about police conduct and accountability, including this Committee’s consideration of new legislation on June 9, and Attorney General Leticia James’ investigation into the NYPD’s brutal response to the protests. We write to draw your attention to a host of police property seizure and retrieval issues documented during the protests. These practices are only the most recent manifestations of long-standing abusive police practices. 

For decades, public defenders have advocated for greater due process and transparency in the NYPD’s handling of personal property, most recently culminating in the Council’s enactment of Admin. Code § 14-169 (“Local Law 131”) in 2017 and The Bronx Defenders’ settlement of the federal lawsuit Encarnacion v. City of New York in 2018. Yet many problems remain, including deeply troubling practices highlighted in the experiences of people swept up in the mass arrests during the recent protests. 

Despite the passage of Local Law 131, the NYPD has not complied with reporting and transparency requirements in connection with its property seizure practices. The NYPD failed to publish any of the 2019 data required by the law on March 1, 2020. Subsequently, it issued a one-page report that by its own admission included “only a subset” of the required data because the “Department is in the process of upgrading computer systems to more efficiently track and report on this data.” 

  1. Mass Protest Arrests Led to a Complete Breakdown in an Already Dysfunctional Property Seizure and Retrieval Process 

Unlike most arrests, which begin with processing at a local precinct, protestors who were arrested over the past few weeks were all taken to a single location (often One Police Plaza) regardless of the borough they were arrested in, pursuant to the NYPD’s “coordinated arrest processing procedure.” Many arrestees were released without their essential property — including wallets, phones, house keys and prescription medication — with no means of retrieving it, because the Property Clerk office at One Police Plaza was closed to the public. Other people were released after arrest without photo identification because officers simply forgot to give the ID back after running warrant checks. The confusion caused by the mass arrests led to a total breakdown in an already dysfunctional process. In addition, officers confiscated a number of bicycles from protestors, failing to voucher them and in some cases simply discarding them on the street. 

One particularly shocking story involves a protestor who spent a day in the hospital and another in bookings after he was beaten by police officers during his arrest, suffering a fractured kneecap. When he was finally released from custody, he returned to One Police Plaza to retrieve his belongings, which included his house keys and phone. Upon arrival, however, he was informed by officers that the building was closed to the public and he should 

return the next day. The next day, which was June 3, he called One Police Plaza and was once again informed that the property clerk window was closed that day. Ultimately he was not able to access his property until the following day, and only because he went to the window at 9:30am, when it first opened. In the meantime he was forced to sleep at a friend’s house while dealing with this severe injury, as he was unable to unlock the door to his apartment without his keys. 

Other people who were arrested were not provided with the legally required paperwork (“voucher”) documenting their seized property and providing instructions on how to retrieve it. Despite long-standing City rules and a federal consent decree in Encarnacion v. City of New York that both require police to provide people their vouchers, the NYPD continues to fail in this regard–even after extensive department-wide training. The Bronx Defenders has collected survey data showing that of our clients in the Bronx, half of people whose property was seized during an arrest did not receive complete vouchers, and many did not receive any paperwork at all. 

Read the full letter here