We Asked Former NYPD About the Unmarked Van Used in Trans Protester's Arrest

“That’s not the normal warrant arrest.”
July 30, 2020, 8:49pm
Screenshots via Michelle Lhooq’s Twitter.

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On its surface, the video of plainclothes officers pulling up to a crowd of peaceful protesters in an unmarked van and apprehending 18-year-old Nikki Stone in Manhattan appeared to show a kidnapping. In a matter of seconds, police arrived, staved off onlookers, grabbed the trans teenager, shoved her in the back seat, and peeled off.

The NYPD later explained that Stone, who was released shortly after midnight Wednesday, was wanted for damaging police cameras on at least five separate occasions in June and July.

“The Warrant Squad uses unmarked vehicles to effectively locate wanted suspects,” the NYPD said in a statement on Twitter Wednesday. “When she was placed into the Warrant Squad's unmarked gray minivan, it was behind a cordon of NYPD bicycle cops in bright yellow and blue uniform shirts there to help effect the arrest.”

Despite Stone’s alleged crimes and the NYPD’s explanation, concerns about police harassment of the trans community and parallels to recent clashes between protesters and federal law enforcement in Portland quickly arose. Even top officials like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio took issue with how aggressive and sudden the arrest was.

"I'm surprised that especially at this time the NYPD would take such an obnoxious action,” Cuomo said Wednesday during a phone conference. “It was wholly insensitive to everything that's going on. It was frightening. And to me, it's emblematic of the larger problem."

“I think it was the wrong time and the wrong place to effectuate that arrest,” Mayor de Blasio said in a press conference Wednesday. “It’s the kind of thing we don’t want to see in this city.”

But were the tactics of this arrest outside of typical police procedures? VICE News spoke to retired police officers, including former NYPD, about the role of warrant squads and why what transpired Tuesday raises serious concerns for them.

“My first reaction when I saw [the video] was ‘What in the world is that?’” said Marq Claxton, a retired NYPD detective and 20-year veteran of the force. “Their response of jumping out and grabbing somebody, throwing them in a van and speeding away, that kind of activity is very unusual. That’s not the normal warrant arrest.”

What Is a Warrant Squad?

A warrant squad is a unit in a police department responsible for finding and apprehending people who have a warrant out for their arrest. Nearly all police departments have one, or some kind of equivalent.

“Any medium to larger-size agency is going to have a warrant squad,” said Robert Pusins, a retired 30-year veteran of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. “A small agency may have six police officers that do this. They may call it a fugitive squad or use other names to describe the activity, but their role is always the same.”

As the largest police department in the country, the NYPD has two types of warrant squads, according to Claxton. Borough warrant squads typically handle warrants for more serious crimes, like homic, within one of the five boroughs. The borough warrant squad is also responsible for coordinating with other departments and locating and arresting individuals wanted from other states. And precinct-level warrant officers handle low-level offenses, such as fare beating, marijuana possession, and public drinking.

Claxton said in most cases, the warrant squad will successfully rely on phone calls to conduct their work, informing the individual that they have a chance to come forward without police confrontation.

“Ninety percent of the time, they’ll call the person and say, ‘Hey, listen, you missed a court appearance; we can come and put handcuffs on you and drag you down to the court, or you can come in on such-and-such date.”

On the occasions where the person isn’t compliant, the squad will go out, and locate and arrest the person in question for their appointed court date. As mentioned by the NYPD’s official statement on Stone’s arrest, these operations are typically carried out undercover.

“The warrant guys are in plainclothes,” Claxton said. “For those individuals who don't voluntarily come to them and they have to go out looking for them, you want to be able to blend in as much as possible.”

Joseph Pollini, a retired NYPD lieutenant commander who served for 33 years, said that they typically choose unmarked vehicles for the same reason: to avoid having to chase down suspects who decide they don’t want to cooperate.

“That's why they travel in covert-type vehicles,” Pollini said. “So this way they can surveil places and wait till whoever they're trying to arrest shows up. It's done hundreds of times a day, and that’s just how it is.”

Issues With Stone’s Arrest

Just because the officers were technically allowed to use the element of surprise on Stone doesn’t mean they’re entirely in the clear.

Under normal circumstances, a warrant squad arrest goes as follows: If the suspect is seen on the street, one of the officers identifies themselves to the suspect, asks the individual to put their hands behind their back, handcuffs them, and walks them to the police vehicle, according to Claxton.

But that’s not what happened Tuesday, when cops subdued Stone in the middle of a protest as additional officers pushed onlookers away.

“That was more reminiscent of what's been going on in Oregon with the feds,” Claxton said.

The incident left many people, including politicians and civil rights organizations, confused as to what they’d witnessed.

Pollini said that while Stone’s crimes were considered a felony, which would make it the responsibility of the borough warrant squad, apprehending someone like that in front of a crowd was not the way to go. It’s also unclear if Stone had prior court dates for the charges against her. or if she failed to show up.

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the NYPD directed VICE News to a statement Chief Terrance Monahan gave to ABC 7 Eyewitness News: that the cops who were observing Stone didn’t want to cause a scene and only went after her in front of the crowd once their cover was blown by Stone herself. That, however, doesn’t appear on the viral video of her arrest.

“She approached them,” Monahan said. “We always want to grab someone away from the crowds. She identified that they were cops, she came up to them. She followed them off the set. They had to make that arrest at that point. This is what we do. We lock people up for the crimes in the city.”

But considering the circumstances of where Stone was and what she was doing, the officers should have considered an entirely different, more casual approach, according to Pollini.

“There's a way to talk things down,” he said “You say, ‘Listen, we have what we believe is a warrant for your arrest. We believe that it’s you. If you don't believe it’s you, just come to the station house with us and we'll try to rectify the situation, right? You know, you try to talk in a way to calm the person down and not excite the person and not excite the crowd that was there.”

Since Stone’s arrest, her mother tweeted that her daughter is doing well and that the family appreciated all of the concern. Tuesday night, she was fingerprinted and received her desk appearance ticket before being released. VICE News reached out to the NYPD for comment on when she’s expected to make a criminal court appearance but did not hear back. 
Stone, who goes by the name of Stickers, was also homeless at the time of the arrest. She launched a GoFundMe page on Saturday for assistance, according to the New York Post, and since Tuesday she has received more than 1,100 donations and raised more than $39,000 on GoFundMe, surpassing her original goal of $15,000.

Cover: Screenshots via Michelle Lhooq’s Twitter.