LONG ISLAND CITY, QUEENS — New video footage shows the moment two Department of Homeless Services police officers handcuffed, detained and searched a Queens man after he photographed them without masks, in what their own agency has called an “absolutely unacceptable abuse of authority.”
The surveillance videos, obtained exclusively by Patch, capture the full half-hour encounter between Long Island City resident Anshuman Bhatia and the uniformed peace officers, who were patrolling a hotel being used as an emergency shelter.
The footage proves the officers’ allegation that Bhatia harassed them was a “fabrication,” his lawyer, Gideon Oliver, told Patch in a phone interview. The officers gave Bhatia a summons for second-degree harassment, which Oliver said was eventually dismissed.
Also captured in the footage: the moment one officer removed Bhatia’s face mask and tried to unlock his phone with Face ID by holding it up to Bhatia’s face, as he sat in a makeshift holding cell inside the hotel.
“I managed to swerve away both times he puts it in my face to not let it unlock,” Bhatia told Patch. “That was my big wake-up call in terms of what was happening to me in that sort of mini jail cell.”
After Bhatia’s retelling of the incident went viral on Twitter and was reported in a Gothamist article, the Department of Homeless Services suspended two of the officers involved for 30 days.
The officers, supervising officer Ian Bourne and officer Joseph Coye, have since returned to work but were reassigned to administrative positions. Meanwhile, the agency is in the process of filing disciplinary charges against them for violations of the Department of Homeless Services code of conduct, a spokesperson told Patch.
Both officers are being charged with improper detainment of an individual and providing false statements, and Coye faces a charge of improper issuance of a summons, according to the spokesperson.
The agency is still evaluating a third officer’s role in the incident.
“As we have said, the actions described, including unjustified detainment and false reporting of the incident to us by the officer, are an absolutely unacceptable abuse of authority and breach of trust, which we will not tolerate at our agency,” NYC Department of Social Services spokesperson Isaac McGinn said in an emailed statement. “We are bringing charges that may result in the termination of the officers involved.”
The Department of Social Services has forwarded information on the administrative charges to the Queens District Attorney’s Office, setting the stage for prosecutors to bring their own charges if they choose. A spokesperson for the DA’s office did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
The incident unfolded the evening of July 12 at a hotel at 23-15 39th Ave., just two blocks from Bhatia’s home in Long Island City.
Bhatia was walking past the hotel when he spotted a Department of Homeless Services police officer without a mask. Bhatia, like a growing number of New Yorkers, had started using his phone camera to document maskless police officers, so he snapped a photo of the officer.
The officer asked Bhatia why he took a photo. Because officers are required to wear masks, Bhatia told him. The officer claimed he didn’t need to wear one because he was outside, according to Bhatia’s retelling.
Just then, another officer walked out of the hotel without a mask, and Bhatia tried to take another photo. Bhatia said the officers told him— falsely — that he had no right to take their picture then moved to handcuff him, yelling, “Don’t resist!”
The officers brought him inside the hotel and into a small room, where one officer cuffed Bhatia’s leg to a bench and searched him and his backpack as a supervisor coached him through the steps. The officer tried to manually unlock Bhatia’s phone, then removed Bhatia’s mask and held the phone up to his face as Bhatia turned his head side to side to avoid unlocking his phone with Face ID.
Bhatia kept asking why he was being detained and if he was being charged with something, but the officers only told him, “You will be held as long as we want,” he recalled.
“It was unclear to me what was happening,” Bhatia told Patch. “They just didn’t know what they were doing.”
After about 35 minutes, an officer brought the still-handcuffed Bhatia a summons for harassment. He left the slip of paper on Bhatia’s knee. The officers uncuffed him and walked him outside, and Bhatia took his backpack and left for home.
The whole time, the officers were maskless.
“Ensuring a safe, supportive environment for clients, staff, and community members alike, is our top priority as we help New Yorkers in need get back on their feet at our shelter locations,” McGinn, the Department of Social Services spokesperson, said in a statement. “We are deeply sorry for the experience Mr Bhatia had to endure here.”
Bhatia told Patch the agency has yet to reach out to him personally to apologize: “Apologize to my face,” he said.
Oliver, his lawyer, put things more bluntly. He noted that lying on a summons, which is done under oath, is a crime, and that searching someone’s phone without their consent or a warrant may violate an individual’s constitutional rights.
“The agency saying they’re deeply sorry for PR purposes or a request for comment from a reporter is very different from having actual accountability for the officers,” Oliver said.
If he could go back, Bhatia said he still would’ve taken the officers’ photographs — and he’s continued to do so when he sees police not wearing masks.
“An important job of citizens is to monitor and check government,” Bhatia said. “I realize me posting a Twitter picture of cops not wearing a mask is a minutely small step in that, but I think the more we can do that and draw attention to government overstepping their authority is really important.”