Drawing on data from the Fatal Encounters project, in May 2018, the Intercept reported that despite being only a small fraction of the New York Police Department (NYPD) force, on-duty officers who are not wearing uniforms are responsible for many police killings in New York. Plainclothes police, Joseph George and Liam Quigley reported, “have been involved in nearly a third of all fatal shooting incidents recorded since 2000.”
Data from Fatal Encounters, a website that tracks deaths involving law enforcement officers, indicates that on-duty NYPD officers have been involved in at least 174 fatal shootings since 2000. Fifty-four of those deaths involved plainclothes or undercover police, while eleven involved both uniformed and plainclothes police. An estimated six percent of NYPD officers work undercover in plainclothes, but that group has been involved in 31% of the force’s fatal shootings since 2000.
The Intercept reported that, in contrast with regular beat cops, who generally respond to 911 calls, NYPD plainclothes officers “attempt to catch criminals in the act, or even before it.” Plainclothes, the NYPD says, helps officers evade detection by violent criminals.
In Crown Heights, where members of an NYPD anti-crime unit dressed in plainclothes had recently shot and killed Saheed Vassell, a 21-year-old nurse told the Intercept, “The undercovers think they have the authority to do anything they want.” The article also quoted a Crown Heights barber, “The undercovers are doing whatever they want to do… Mostly the undercovers want to provoke you. They ride up slowly, windows down, and then say, like, ‘What are you looking at?’ And then when you say something back, they get out of the car.”
The article noted that plainclothes officers “effectively evade accountability by design.” They seldom wear body cameras, for example. They drive unmarked cars that lack unit numbers, making it more difficult for witnesses to identify them when reporting allegations of police misconduct. In some cases, the Intercept reported, NYPD vehicles have been observed with altered or obscured license plates, making such identification even more difficult.
George Joseph and Liam Quigley, “Plainclothes NYPD Cops are Involved in a Staggering Number of Killings,” The Intercept, May 9, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/05/09/saheed-vassell-nypd-plain-clothes/.
Student Researcher: Theresa Yonzon (Sonoma State University)
Community Evaluator: Danny Fennessy (Deputy Sheriff, Marin County)