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‘I thought I was going to die’: Man recalls violent social distancing arrest in Brooklyn

The plainclothes officer who lunged at Atunbi during a chaotic scene in East New York on April 29. (Screenshot)

BY KEVIN DUGGAN

On the warm evening of April 29, Adegoke Atunbi parked his car on an East New York street corner as he went into a nearby bodega to buy a drink. That’s when he noticed a crowd beginning to form around a group of police officers who were arresting a young man near Sutter Avenue and Hemlock Street. 

“I thought, ‘Let me just pull out my camera and watch what’s going on,’” said 31-year-old Atunbi.

As swarms of other onlookers gathered and several more officers arrived on the scene, the mood became decidedly more restless for a tense few moments — and then, after yelling for the crowds to back off, a plain-clothed officer punched one of the bystanders in the face. 

Atunbi, having failed to document the moments immediately preceding that violent escalation, tried to shift his camera to catch the chaotic scene unfolding next to him, but other officers began to push him back — seemingly becoming agitated with him capturing the events on video. 

“I can video and document as a citizen, I’m not impeding the arrest,” said Atunbi.

Moments later, a cop in a blue long sleeve shirt forcefully shoved Atunbi, jerking his camera lens off the action — before, Atunbi claims, the cop hit him in the face, shoved him to the ground, and brought him in handcuffs to the 75th Precinct station house.

“I felt a kick on my head, a kick on my back. The handcuffs on my veins were really tight, I kept begging them to loosen them a little bit,” said the father-of-two. “I was on the floor, I thought I was going to die.”

The incident was Atunbi’s first violent encounter with law enforcement — and, he said, that the takedown left him with an injured leg, which he has yet to have a doctor examine because he fears getting infected with COVID-19 at a medical facility. 

“I can’t walk properly right now due to the incident,” he said. “I couldn’t go to the hospital because of all the coronavirus there.”

The attacking cop’s badge matches that of Sergeant Adnan Radoncic of the 75th precinct, who is named in at least six lawsuits between 2012 and 2018, four of which have combined to cost the city $433,000, according to the nonprofit Legal Aid Society’s database, CAPstat.

The 75th precinct, which is by far the most often sued precinct in the Five Boroughs, was named in 91 federal lawsuits between 2015 and June 2018, which totaled to cost taxpayers more than $9 million in settlements, according to the society’s tally. 

And the eastern Brooklyn precinct might face yet another legal battle, as Atunbi says that he is considering filing charges stemming from the incident.

The police report from the hostile encounter states that officers on patrol attempted to break up a group of between six and eight men, who had gathered on the corner at 6:50 pm, and were “engaging in aggressive and confrontational behavior.”

Officers tried to disperse the group but some of them allegedly resisted, including one 31-year-old, who cops say tried to fight officers, before they used “necessary force” to take him into custody — and charged him with menacing a police officer, resisting arrest, and obstructing governmental administration.

Authorities also slapped two other men, including Atunbi and the man who stood beside him in the video, with disorderly conduct and violating Mayor Bill de Blasio’s social distancing laws.

As with several other high-profile arrests this past week, many of the cops on the scene were wearing no masks, gloves, or other protective equipment — including the precinct’s commanding officer Deputy Inspector John Mastronardi, who donned plain clothes, wearing a burgundy hoodie, and shrugged off criticisms from bystanders for his officers’s behavior, according to Atunbi.

“He just stood there and let his officers abuse citizens,” he alleged.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has launched a probe into at least three similarly violent social distancing arrests — two in the 75th Precinct, and another in the neighboring 73rd Precinct — that happened on the weekend of May 2 after politicians and advocates slammed the Department for brutally enforcing the law in black communities, while gleefully handing out free masks in more well-heeled neighborhoods.

“The incidents we saw this past weekend in our parks and on our streets and social media feeds have made it abundantly clear that the same historical disparities in police enforcement are reflected in and magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic response,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams in a statement. “This inequity is made clear when some violating social distancing receive a mask while others receive a summons, when some are warned and others violently arrested.”

Even the officers union, the Police Benevolent Association, came out against making police enforce social distancing, while scolding politicians for not giving clear guidance.

“This situation is untenable: the NYPD needs to get cops out of the social distancing enforcement business altogether,” said PBA president Pat Lynch in a statement. “The cowards who run this city have given us nothing but vague guidelines and mixed messages, leaving the cops on the street corners to fend for ourselves.”

In his May 7 press briefing, de Blasio countered that the vast majority of social distancing enforcement has been successful and that cops will play a central role during the pandemic.

“I am not making my decisions based on a very few interactions that were handled poorly or went bad, I make my decisions based on the millions of interactions that are going right,” de Blasio said.

Atunbi said that the officers he encountered on that evening were not taking the mayor’s health directives seriously and that they acted as if they were above the law. 

“They just shrugged,” he said. “How are you supposed to uphold the law, but you guys are breaking the law?”

This story first appeared on brooklynpaper.com.

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