NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – The New York state attorney-general sued the New York City Police Department on Thursday (Jan 14) over what she said were widespread abuses in how officers handled the protests that erupted last summer after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The attorney-general, Letitia James, wants a court-appointed monitor to oversee the department’s policing tactics at future protests, and a court order to declare that the policies and practices the department used during the protests last May and June were unlawful.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, marked the first time in history that the state attorney-general has sued a police department, according to James’ office.
More than 2,000 demonstrators were arrested, most of them while protesting peacefully. An investigation by the attorney-general’s office found that police officers beat protesters with batons, rammed them with bicycles, used a dangerous containment strategy called kettling, and arrested legal observers and medics without proper justification.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who met with James on Wednesday, expressed disappointment in her decision to go to court to seek a monitor. He said the lawsuit would slow his administration’s efforts to implement major changes – a goal he said they shared.
“A court process and the added bureaucracy of a federal monitor will not speed up this work,” he said in a statement Thursday after the lawsuit was filed. “There is no time to waste and we will continue to press forward.”
John Miller, the deputy police commissioner for counterterrorism and intelligence, said the department welcomed changes. But he said the lawsuit does not show a “pattern and practice” required by federal law for a monitor to be appointed.
However, James said at a news conference Thursday that officers’ behaviour at the protests demonstrated a pattern of illegal and harmful practices that the mayor and Police Department had failed to prevent through discipline, policies and training.
“There was ample ability and opportunity for the city and NYPD leadership to make important changes to the way that officers interact with peaceful protesters, but time and time again, they did not,” James said.
“They did not train, they did not supervise, they did not stop officers who engaged in this misconduct,” she continued. “And they did not discipline them either. Instead, they failed the people of the City of New York.”
James, the state’s top prosecutor, has not brought charges against any of the officers involved in the protests, and neither have the police, local prosecutors nor the city Department of Investigation. She said that her investigation, assigned by Governor Andrew Cuomo, was a civil matter and that the problems with the police’s handling of the protests go well beyond the acts of individual officers.
But the lawsuit is an extraordinary step. Attorneys-general rarely leverage their powers against entire police departments, especially in places where the mayor who appoints the department’s leaders belongs to the same political party. De Blasio and James are both Democrats, though the city’s top two police officials, Commissioner Dermot Shea and Chief of Department Terence Monahan, are Republicans who have supported President Donald Trump.
James’ complaint amounted to an admonishment of de Blasio, Shea and Monahan, who are named in her lawsuit. She recalled at the news conference how Shea had said that his department had executed its protest plan “flawlessly” and how the mayor had said the police’s uses of kettling to contain protesters were “justified.”
The mayor’s office said Thursday that he had never used the word “justified.” De Blasio, in December, banned police from using the tactic.
James has called for control of the Police Department to be stripped from the mayor and given to an independent panel. She said her investigation had found “an egregious abuse of police power; rampant, excessive use of force; and leadership unable and willing to stop it.”
Gideon Oliver, a civil rights lawyer who is representing several demonstrators who have filed lawsuits against the police, said the attorney-general’s lawsuit built on years of efforts by civil rights lawyers to address “the city’s wildly inadequate responses to these problems that have been going on for a very long time.” Patrick Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union, said the police response was a failure of the city’s leadership.
“They sent cops out to police unprecedented protests and violent riots with no plan, no strategy and no support,” he said. “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.”
If James is successful, a monitor would join another already keeping watch over how the city implements changes to its stop-and-frisk policy. In 2013, a federal judge appointed a monitor after finding that officers targeted and stopped Black and Hispanic people without sufficient legal reason in violation of their civil rights.
The city has paid large sums to settle lawsuits stemming from clashes between police and civilians, such as during Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and the Republican National Convention in 2004. But officers have rarely been disciplined for abuses, and policies have remained the same for decades. The lawsuit filed Thursday mentioned abuses at protests that continued through the November election.
This summer’s incidents drew scrutiny and prompted several investigations into the department’s tactics and the officers’ behaviour. In December, the city Department of Investigation said the Police Department’s botched handling of the protests was emblematic of a systemic failure to recognise the First Amendment rights of protesters.
De Blasio has said that he looks “back with remorse” at the fraught first days of June last summer. “I’m sorry I didn’t do better,” he said after the report was released.
Andrew Smith, a protester, spoke at James’ news conference about being attacked by an officer.
In a video that went viral, an officer snatched down Smith’s face mask and pepper-sprayed him. The officer later bragged about what he did to other cops. Smith, who sued the Police Department, described the attorney-general’s lawsuit as historic and an “indictment against the largest police force in America for its culture of taking opportunities to target those that they are sworn to protect.”
Passersby who have tried to record officers’ interactions with protesters and other people say they, too, have been attacked by the police.
Rayne Valentine works at a city hospital where his duties included moving bodies of people who had died of Covid-19 to refrigeration. During a walk home, he said he stopped to record six officers he saw beating another man.
After a brief exchange with one officer, he said, several of them attacked him. He had to return to the hospital that night because of a gash the attack left on his head. Doctors closed his wound with staples.
The Legal Aid Society, the city’s largest public-defender group, and the New York Civil Liberties Union represent 11 people who have sued the city over the protests. The organisations said in a joint statement that they hoped the attorney-general’s lawsuit would be “the beginning of a serious reckoning over police violence and militarised use of force against protesters, especially people of colour, and a check on the impunity many officers have come to see as their right.”
Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, said that the lawsuit was not enough on its own to break the cycle of police abuse and public outcry. City and state leaders, he said, must acknowledge policing disparities and use their powers to redesign a public-safety model that is less reliant on officers.
Noting the current budget negotiations, he added: “What better time to do this and have this conversation, and frankly do the things that everybody knows we need to do? Because it’s not even about as much conversation as it is about action.”
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