Charges dropped for hundreds of alleged looters in New York City
In late May and early June 2020, looters destroyed shop windows in New York's Bronx and Manhattan districts.
Many were taped, some with faces visible. Others even posted their own videos of their actions on social media those nights. Hundreds were arrested.
However, a review of NYPD data by the investigative team at WNBC, NBC's own New York station, reveals that a large percentage of cases - particularly in the Bronx - have been dismissed and that many trespassing convictions have passed without time in Jail.
"I was totally shocked that everything was being swept aside," said Jessica Betancourt, who owns a glasses store that was ransacked and destroyed along Burnside Avenue in the Bronx last June.
According to the data, 118 arrests were made in the Bronx during the worst looting in early June.
Click here to watch the WNBC New York version of this story.
Since then, the NYPD has said the Bronx District Attorney and the courts dismissed most of these cases - 73 in total. Eighteen cases are still pending and there have been 19 convictions on mostly minor charges such as trespassing, charges without prison sentences.
Betancourt, who is also the vice president of a local dealers' association, called the numbers "disgusting". She said local business leaders were upset that few would be held accountable for the destruction they caused.
In Manhattan, much of the looting occurred in the upscale Soho neighborhood. Amid the Covid pandemic, mobs and criminals took advantage of the huge protests in the city following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
Click here to read the NBC New York version of this story.
NYPD data shows there were 485 arrests in Manhattan. Of these cases, 222 were later dropped and 73 resulted in convictions on minor charges such as trespassing, which does not result in jail time. Another 40 cases concerned young people and were referred to the family court; 128 cases remain open.
Law enforcement expert and former NYPD patrol chief Wilbur Chapman expressed his anger at the prosecutors for dropping so many looted and burglary cases.
"If they're so overworked they can't complete the mission they were hired to do, maybe they should find other work," Chapman said.
Sources in the Manhattan and Bronx prosecutor's offices said that in some cases the evidence simply wasn't strong enough to produce unambiguous evidence. And with the courts closed amid the Covid pandemic, there was a huge backlog of cases that was unwieldy for both the courts and prosecutors.
The NYPD set up a task force in the aftermath of the riots to examine videos and photos to separate suspected rioters from peaceful protesters. This work shares similarities with what the FBI did on hundreds of post-riot arrests in the U.S. Capitol.
But unlike federal attorneys who pursue the Capitol Hill rioters, New York City prosecutors handle most of the burglary cases.
A looted Muji store with broken window panes in Manhattan on June 1, 2020. (Lev Radin / SIPA USA via AP file)
The NYPD says there have been follow-up investigations, partly led by Assistant Inspector Andrew Arias, that included photos and stolen property that was recovered.
"We had to analyze each case individually and see if we could actually prove that the right person had committed the crime," said Arias.
Former Chief Chapman says while the NYPD was doing some follow-up investigations, the data showed that the district attorneys and the courts did not.
"It allowed people who have committed crimes to get away with it," Chapman said.
Bronx DA Darcell Clark declined repeated requests for interviews, as did Manhattan DA Cy Vance.
In an internal memo, Vance says there have been over 600 commercial burglary arrests as well as over 3,500 unindicted crime cases in the pipeline waiting to be brought to justice. His memo states that all of these cases have been put on hold because of the pandemic.
Before Vance dropped a case, Vance asked his prosecutors to review the defendants' criminal records, whether the police were really able to place the suspect at the scene and whether the person had "damaged the store".
Vance told his office, "Many of these commercial break-ins will ask you to reduce the initial misconduct charge to a misdemeanor and settle the case ... with a view to rehabilitation."
He also stressed the "continuing goal of achieving consistency and fair treatment in these cases".
A spokesman for the New York court system said that decisions to close cases were primarily made by prosecutors. "The prosecutor must file an application or, as with hundreds of orders in court, refuse to prosecute," said Lucian Chalfen.
Some insurance businesses are back in the Bronx. But the scars from the unrest a year ago remain.
"They could do it again because they know they are not getting the right penalty," Betancourt said.
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