New York State Sues New York City in Renouncement of Protest Brutality

The police response to civil rights protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led New York’s attorney general to hit New York City with a federal complaint Thursday.

Hawk Newsome, chairman of Black Lives Matter New York, urges supporters outside of NYPD headquarters to continue their protests for police reforms on June 8, 2020. (Courthouse News photo/Josh Russell)

MANHATTAN (CN) — When protests swept the nation last year in response to the police killings of unarmed Black civilians like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, how authorities responded to these demonstrations, especially peaceful ones, often compounded the unrest.

Bringing these tensions to a head, the state of New York slapped New York City with a federal complaint Thursday that says the brutal tactics its police force deployed beginning in May 2020 “are not new.”

“Instead they are the latest manifestation of the NYPD’s unconstitutional policing practices,” says the complaint in New York’s Southern District.

In addition to the city, the 69-page complaint names as co-defendants Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD top leadership, Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea and Chief of the Department Terence A. Monahan. 

“What we saw was legal rights and protections tossed aside,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said at press conference this morning. 

The civil lawsuit refers to a scathing report released last month from New York City Department of Investigation, which found that standardized, agency-wide, in-service training related to policing protests was lacking. 

In 115 pages, the report details “a number of key errors or omissions that likely escalated tensions, and certainly contributed to both the perception and the reality that the Department was suppressing rather than facilitating lawful First Amendment assembly and expression.” 

James says the NYPD failed to correct these practices and adequately train its officers on constitutional policing during a protest.

Brooklyn-based civil rights attorney Gideon Oliver, called the civil lawsuit “unprecedented” and said he hopes it can lead to transparency and “real community control.”

“It’s shocking that it had to come to this,” he said in an interview Thursday. “I’ve been suing the police department over these policies and practices for 16 years, and the city has known about them and had multiple opportunities to rein in the police. And it has always decided to shell out money and settlements and not change things instead of taking a real hard look at what’s been going on in the streets and making policy changes.” 

Oliver represents more than 50 protesters subjected to a policing tactic known as kettling last summer at a Black Lives Matter protest in a section of the Bronx called Mott Haven.

In the state’s complaint Thursday, kettling as well as pepper spray and bicycles are listed as methods that “caused significant physical harm” because they were used indiscriminately from May to December 2020.

Patrick Lynch, president of Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, reiterated the union’s response to the DOI report in a statement Thursday.

Still shows New York Attorney General Letitia James at a Thursday press conference where she announced civil charges against New York City over its handling of protests between May and December 2020. (Image via Courthouse News)

“We will say it again: what we witnessed in June was a failure of New York City’s leadership,” Lynch wrote. “They sent cops out to police unprecedented protests and violent riots with no plan, no strategy and no support.

“They should be forced to answer for the resulting chaos, instead of pointing fingers at cops on the streets and ignoring the criminals who attacked us with bricks and firebombs.”

A spokesperson for the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Public Information said on Thursday that the department “welcomes reform” and has embraced the oversight findings by both the Department of Investigation and the city’s Law Department.

“As the mayor has said, adding another layer does not speed up the process of continued reform, which we have embraced and led the way on,” the representative added.

In 2014, the city spent $18 million to settle lawsuits related to protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Based on the RNC settlements,  Human Rights Watch estimates that lawsuits related to the civil rights protests in New York City last year could end up costing the city’s taxpayers several million dollars. 

Mark Winston Griffith, a spokesman for Communities United for Police Reform, applauded the attorney general’s suit for taking action against the department’s history of mass violence enacted on protesters. 

“Mayor de Blasio and NYPD leadership enabled, enacted, condoned and excused repeated mass violence against New Yorkers who were exercising their First Amendment Rights last year, with no accountability for misconduct,” Griffith said in statement Thursday. “NYPD violence against protesters is a long-standing problem and it’s a credit to Attorney General James that she’s using the power of her office to challenge the systemic lack of accountability for this violence.” 

The 11-count complaint accuses the NYPD of having unlawfully arrested legal observers, medics and other essential workers, without probable cause and in direct violation of an executive order issued by the mayor exempting them from the city’s curfew imposed at the time. 

“I do not think that every police officer is problematic … but we have a problem that is bigger than any one officer,” Attorney General James remarked Thursday. 

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