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Exclusive Video: Did the NYPD Really Need to Pepper-Spray a Guy Waiting for the Train?

The latest casualty of New York City's controversial policing scheme.

by Raven Rakia
18 October 2014, 5:30am

On Sunday, September 28, New York Police Department officers pepper-sprayed and arrested a young man named A. B. Simmons at a subway station in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. According to a video of the incident obtained by VICE, Simmons was approached by an individual cop between 12:30 and 1 AM at the Atlantic Ave. – Barclays center stop, the busiest in the borough. After being told he was not under arrest, Simmons, already visibly upset, grew angry and tried to get away from the officer, who was subsequently joined by another cop. After appearing to lunge at one of the officers, he was pepper-sprayed while they handcuffed him.

An eyewitness told me the confrontation was sparked by an accusation of turnstile-jumping (or "fare-beating"), one of the low-level offenses targeted under NYPD Commissioner William Bratton’s beloved “broken windows” policing strategy. Regardless of what set it off, the incident provides fresh ammunition for a growing legion of critics who say broken windows means routine, violent nightmares for people of color.

According to Kenneth Montgomery, who witnessed and filmed the encounter, Simmons entered the train station around the same time he did and was waiting on the platform for about 20 minutes before being approached by the first officer. Montgomery told me he saw Simmons swipe in with his Metrocard. The cop who approached Simmons had previously spoken with a group of young men skating down the ramp, asking for their identification. After checking the skaters’ ID and letting them go, he approached Simmons. Montgomery began filming once the conversation between Simmons and the police officer got heated.

“Something told me to start filming it just to see what’s going to happen, because basically the officer was trying to say he didn’t swipe his Metrocard, but [Simmons] was like, ‘Yes, I did. What are you talking about?’” Montgomery said.

Simmons apparently told the officers he had bought an unlimited metro card several days before and had swiped it through the turnstile that night. He can be heard in the video screaming for someone to take his card and try swiping it, presumably to prove its validity. Montgomery can’t make sense of the officers’ decision to pepper-spray the man.

“It just got crazy for no reason,” he said. “I honestly felt like the other cop had no reason to pull out his mace and spray him.”

Montgomery also thinks the time line for the encounter was strange, to say the least.

“If he hopped the turnstile, why wait 18 to 20 minutes to go approach him about it? Usually, if someone hops the train, they [approach them] right away."

Simmons was taken to the 78th Precinct, where he was held overnight. His charges include fare-dodging, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. The NYPD did not respond to VICE’s inquiries about the arrest.

Last week, several disturbing videos came out showing the NYPD using incredible force during what should have been routine interactions with the public. In two of the videos, cops are seen attacking men suspected of petty marijuana violations. In one of them, we hear a man crying, “It’s just a cigarette!”

Subway arrests have increased by 300 percent since Commissioner Bratton took over in January. He has targeted subway breakdancers, panhandlers, fare-dodgers, and peddlers of “loosie” (individual, untaxed) cigarettes, among other harmless criminals. Some of these arrests have ended brutally, as in the case of Eric Garner, a Staten Island dad who was choked to death on video this summer as part of an NYPD crackdown on loosies.

On Thursday, at a Manhattan Institute panel discussion on broken windows, Bratton slammed critics of his signature policing mantra. 

“The idea that we can engage in policing that’s racially proportionate is absurd,” he told reporters, also quipping: "You remember the 1980s? You remember what a hellhole this place was?" Many criminologists dispute the impact of broken windows on NYC's emergence as a safe, large city at a time when crime rates dropped nationwide.

As if targeting low-income people for petty violations wasn’t bad enough, the NYPD's strategy of going after so-called "quality of life" offenses—the crux of broken windows policing—seems to be producing a bevy of resisting-arrest charges, even if the alleged criminal is the one who ends up injured or worse. Simmons, whose restaurant co-worker told me he was just on the way home from his job, is the latest star in the dystopian reality show that is policing in America's largest city.

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