NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The officer who clashed with a group of homeless men on a Lower East Side subway platform spoke out about the encounter Thursday.
Officer Syed Ali spoke as officials announced three of the five homeless men seen on video clashing with him are behind bars.
Web Extra: Officer Syed Ali Speaks Out
Ali said the incident began when he was approached by a woman on the East Broadway and Rutgers Street subway station platform Sunday night. The woman told him she was being harassed by the group and didn’t feel safe.
“I approached calmly and I told them ‘Hey, I don’t care where you go, but you can’t be here. You’re scaring our customers, and the public is generally feeling unsafe,’ and that’s our ticket to let them know that they’ve got to move,” he said. “Unfortunately they didn’t move the way I would expect them to and it turned into more of an altercation than a simple ejection.”
Ali said deescalation and “verbal judo” is one of the most significant parts of police training. He was alone and without a partner at the time of the encounter.
Ali, who previously served in the Army, said his training kicked in when confronted by the group. He explained why he didn’t reach for his service weapon despite being outnumbered.
“Life is precious. And going to that weapon is not necessarily the first thing we should be thinking about. There are other tools that we’ve been given, other tactics that we’ve been shown. And we’ve got to use all the resources before we go to deadly physical force,” Ali said. “I wasn’t thinking about plan B and C. Plan A was to protect myself and my safety zone… and my safety zone is at least six feet.”
Ali said safety was the only thing on his mind during the confrontation, including when one of the suspects tumbled into the subway tracks.
“When I saw that guy trip over, I was like ‘Holy cow, let me try to grab him as quickly as I can.’ Unfortunately I was unable to maintain that safety and be able to grab him. I felt like the next biggest thing I could do is cut the power,” Ali explained.
Ali said he was aware he was outnumbered five to one.
“I can tell you the feeling that I had immediately at that moment. I felt a trickle of sweat go down the back of my neck, and then it was just straight up police action,” Ali said. “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been in situations where weapons were used, especially in combat, being on patrols. What we’re taught is don’t go immediately to what you think might happen. Take a second, even if it’s the slightest second, think about it.”
Ali could be heard on video telling the suspects “please don’t make me hurt you.”
“That’s what we’re taught at the academy. It’s preserving life. Courtesy, professionalism and respect. That’s a part of respect: Please keep your distance from me,” he said. “They weren’t, and unfortunately I had to take a defensive posture because of that.”
“I’m trying to survive. That’s the number one thing,” Ali said. “I want to go home. And I bet every police officer in the city thinks exactly the same thing: We’re going home.”
As to the arrest of three suspects, he said “justice has been served.”
Ali says he’s been getting calls from Army buddies from overseas since video of the encounter went viral.
Cellphone video shows Ali fighting off the group of intoxicated men with a baton.
During the encounter, one of the men fell onto the subway tracks.
Ali immediately called for the trains to be stopped. The man who fell onto the tracks was not injured.
All five of the men were taken in for a psychological evaluation. They were also initially cited for sleeping on the station floor, which is a violation of transit rules but not a crime. It hasn’t been prosecuted since 2016 under a policy that reels in prosecuting those kinds of low-level violations.
Prosecutors said they were not aware of the men’s encounter with the officer when they made the decision not to prosecute them for sleeping in the station.
Eliseo Alvarez, 36, and Juan Nunez, 27, were arrested Wednesday night and charged with obstruction of governmental administration and rioting. Alvarez was additionally charged with assault and criminal possession of a weapon.
The NYPD said a third suspect, 31-year-old Leobardo Alvardo, was arrested Thursday in connection with the brawl. He faces charges of obstruction of governmental administration and riot.
All three men appeared before a judge late Thursday.
Two other men in the video, who appeared to be trying to break up the scuffle, aren’t facing charges.
“I am very pleased to hear that the men who attacked Officer Syed Ali on a subway platform several days ago will be prosecuted for their crimes,” City Councilman Chaim Deutsch (D-48th) said in a statement sent to CBS2.
Deutsch added the arrests send “a strong message that actions have consequences, and this city will not stand for our police officers to become targets.”
The incident has sparked controversy, with many officials calling for harsher punishment for the men and a renewed debate about how to handle low-level transit crime.
“It’s alarming to think about being the woman and also being the person who was drunk and attacked the officer and went on the train tracks,” subway rider Mia Ryan said.
Ali, an Army veteran, was praised by police and city officials for de-escalating the situation, but some are now slamming the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for not previously charging the men with attacking the officer.
CBS2 reached out to the DA’s office and was told the men were arrested for a non-penal law violation, and that’s why they were not initially charged.
Patrick Lynch, the head of the police union, called the move another example of the DA’s attempt to “decriminalize behavior in the subways.”
Former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton warned on Twitter that the failure to enforce quality of life offenses, especially in the subways, would bring back the high crime level of the 1970s and 1980s.
Mayor Bill de Blasio also chimed in online two days after the attack, saying acts like this will not be tolerated. He also announced increased patrols around subway stations to ensure rider safety.