Charges dropped for hundreds of alleged looters in New York City

In late May and early June 2020, looters smashed storefronts in the Bronx and Manhattan boroughs of New York City.

Many were caught on tape, some with their faces visible. Others even posted their own videos of their actions those nights on social media. Hundreds were arrested.

But a review of NYPD data by the investigative team at WNBC, the NBC owned station in New York, shows that a large percentage of the cases — particularly in the Bronx — were dismissed, and that many convictions were for counts like trespassing that carry no jail time.

"I was in total shock that everything is being brushed off to the side," said Jessica Betancourt, who owns an eyeglass shop that was looted and destroyed along Burnside Avenue in the Bronx last June.

According to the data, 118 arrests were made in the Bronx during the worst of the looting in early June.

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Since then, the NYPD says the Bronx district attorney and the courts have dismissed most of those cases — 73 in all. Eighteen cases remain open and there have been 19 convictions for mostly lesser counts like trespassing, counts which carry no jail time.

Betancourt, who is also vice president of a local merchants 'association, called the numbers "disgusting." She said local business leaders are upset few are being held accountable for the destruction they caused.

In Manhattan, much of the looting occurred in the upscale neighborhood of Soho. Amid the Covid pandemic, mobs and organized criminals were taking advantage of huge protests in the city after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

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The NYPD data shows there were 485 arrests in Manhattan. Of those cases, 222 were later dropped and 73 resulted in convictions for lesser counts like trespassing, which carries no jail time. Another 40 cases involved juveniles and were sent to family court; 128 cases remain open.

Law enforcement expert and former NYPD Chief of Patrol Wilbur Chapman voiced anger at prosecutors for dropping so many looting and burglary cases.

"If they are so overworked that they can't handle the mission that they're hired for, then maybe they should find another line of work," Chapman said.

Sources in the DA's offices in Manhattan and the Bronx said that evidence, in some cases, was simply not strong enough for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. 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 did set up a task force after the riots to examine videos and photos to separate suspected rioters from peaceful protesters. That work shares similarities with what the FBI is doing in making hundreds of arrests after the riot at the U.S. Capitol.

But unlike federal prosecutors who are moving forward with prosecutions of the Capitol Hill rioters, New York City prosecutors are disposing of most burglary-related cases.

A looted Muji store with broken windows in Manhattan on June 1, 2020. (Lev Radin / Sipa USA via AP file)
A looted Muji store with broken windows in Manhattan on June 1, 2020. (Lev Radin / Sipa USA via AP file)

The NYPD says there were follow-up investigations led in part by Deputy Inspector Andrew Arias, where evidence included photos and recovered stolen property.

"We had to analyze each case individually and see if, in fact, we could prove the right person had committed the crime," Arias said.

Former Chief Chapman says while the NYPD did some follow-up, the data shows the district attorneys and the courts have not.

"It allowed people who committed crimes to go scot free," Chapman said.

Bronx DA Darcell Clark declined repeated requests for an interview, as did Manhattan DA Cy Vance. In a statement, the Bronx DA's office said, “We went forward with cases for which we had evidence and a complaining witness. Some cases were dismissed but we held people accountable because we do not tolerate violence against Bronx business owners."

In an internal memo, Vance says there were over 600 commercial burglary arrests in addition to over 3,500 unindicted felony cases in the pipeline waiting to move forward in the courts. His memo says all those cases were on hold because of the pandemic.

Before dropping a case, Vance told his prosecutors to review defendants' criminal histories, whether police could really place the suspect at the scene, and whether the individual caused "any damage to the store."

Vance told his office, "For many of these commercial burglaries, you will be asked to reduce the initial felony charge to a misdemeanor and to dispose of the case … with an eye towards rehabilitation."

He also stressed the "continued goal to achieve consistency and equitable treatment in these cases."

A spokesman for the New York state court system says decisions to dismiss cases were primarily made by the district attorneys. "An application must be made by the district attorney or as they have done with hundreds of [court appearance orders], decline to prosecute them," said Lucian Chalfen.

In the Bronx, some businesses that had insurance are back. But the scars from the riots of a year ago remain.

"They could do it again because they know they won't get the right punishment," Betancourt said.