A migrant was struck by an officer from the Department of Homeless Services on Wednesday morning inside the Bedford-Atlantic Armory shelter in Crown Heights, according to a first hand account from the man, multiple witness accounts, advocates, and cell phone video footage of the altercation.
The man, Meiver Martinez, was then tased twice, he said, and was transported to a nearby hospital.
The City would be taking “immediate action” to suspend the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Police Department officer involved while an investigation is completed, a Department of Social Services spokesperson said in a statement.
Martinez, 21, who is from Venezuela, seemed to still be in a state of shock on Wednesday afternoon as he sat outside the shelter, surrounded by other men staying at the facility, advocates, and a group of DHS police.
He was sitting on a cement bench, sobbing uncontrollably, while another man hugged Martinez and wiped tears from his face, attempting to comfort him. A group of migrants and others staying at the shelter then picked him up and took him to a car to transport him to a sanctuary run by mutual aid groups where he spent the night Wednesday.
“I was mad, no official has the right to do that,” Martinez said about the incident in a phone interview on Wednesday night.
Martinez is one of the more than 7,000 migrants who have arrived in New York City in recent months, some of whom have described a myriad of challenges while they wrestle with New York City’s complex shelter system.
On Wednesday, Martinez said that he had returned to the shelter in Crown Heights in the early hours of the morning from working an overnight shift, and was jolted out of bed as an official tugged at his feet, seemingly telling him to get up. Martinez did not completely understand what was happening since the official was speaking in English, he said, and became agitated. An altercation ensued.
Video of part of the incident, filmed by a witness staying at the shelter, appears to show a DHS officer pushing Martinez on his arm while they are arguing inside of the shelter. Martinez soon becomes upset, coming closer to the officer and gesturing in his face, and kicking a nearby locker. As the altercation continues, Martinez yells at the police officer in Spanish, saying “don’t hit me,” and waves his finger in the officer’s face, while the officer also gestures in Martinez’s face throughout the argument.
The officer tells Martinez to put on his clothes, and using an expletive, tells Martinez to “get the *** out.”
A heated argument continues, and Martinez kicks the locker again. The officer steps forward and swings his fist, striking Martinez in the face. Martinez swings back and hits the officer while another man begins to separate the two, the footage shows.
Martinez said that more officers soon arrived, and he was pushed to the floor. He was overpowered as officers held him down and tased him, he said.
“I felt like I couldn’t breathe…I wanted to talk, but I couldn’t talk,” Martinez said about the tasing. “Too much fear.”
Video footage later shows Martinez with his eyes closed, his hands behind his back, strapped onto a stretcher being taken into an ambulance. Martinez said he was handcuffed during this time.
“Protecting the health and safety of our clients and staff is our top priority at all times and we do not tolerate any violence or misconduct against our clients,” a spokesperson for DSS said in a statement. “Our staff are trained to lead with care and compassion at all times, and we work closely with all our clients to ensure that we are maintaining open lines of communication and addressing any concerns as they arise.”
DSS did not respond to questions about the specific details of how the incident unfolded.
Martinez said that he has been in New York for about a month, and was previously staying at the 30th Street Men’s Intake Shelter in Manhattan. He spent three months making the journey from Venezuela to the United States, he said, and came to New York with his wife. But the two were separated into different shelters, he said, since they were not accepted into a shelter together–which has been the case with other couples trying to stay together in the city, Documented has previously reported.
Wednesday night in the sanctuary was the first night they were able to stay together since shelter intake in the City, Martinez said.
Advocates, migrants and others living at the shelter came together on Wednesday for a press conference, denouncing the actions of the guards inside the facility and the maltreatment they said they have faced while staying in the shelter system.
Antonio Bonilla, 22, who had been helping Martinez in the aftermath of the incident and has been staying at the shelter for about a month, spoke about the conditions at the shelter.
“This happens daily, we are always hit,” Bonilla, who is from Puerto Rico, said in Spanish. “Truly, they treat us badly…They [officials] refer to us as trash.”
Bonilla said that sometimes they are not let into the shelter for several hours when they come back from work, have to sleep in chairs when their beds are given away, and are told that they have to leave the shelter at 8 a.m.
“Many of these people are simply asking to be treated like humans,” Bonilla said.
Recently arrived migrants from Venezuela who did not want to provide their names for fear of retribution detailed similar stories.
DSS did not respond to specific questions about migrants alleging they are mistreated inside the facility and that they don’t feel safe at the shelter. Mayor Eric Adams’ Office did not respond to questions and a request for comment about the incident.
On Wednesday, advocates publicly condemned the situation and said that migrants in shelters across the city were facing immense challenges. “The gentleman [Martinez] was slapped, was pushed, we also heard and saw that he was electrocuted with a taser multiple times which caused him to have to be transported to a hospital,” advocate Jorge Muñiz-Reyes said at the press conference, where about two dozen migrants gathered. “Now, the people who are united here today are here to say no to that kind of violence.”
Martinez said he wasn’t sure what his next steps would be, or where he would continue to sleep, especially in the long term. And he was thinking of all his fellow Venezuelans who were encountering challenges in the shelters, too, he said.
“Just like this happened to me, this can happen to anyone else,” Martinez said.