Two civil rights organizations are suing New York City on behalf of protesters who say they were assaulted and abused by police officers because they expressed anti-police views during nightly demonstrations in the spring in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court, also accuses city leadership of doing little to curtail police conduct that included trapping protesters with a technique called kettling, hitting them with pepper spray, inflicting violence and detaining them for hours. One plaintiff suffered a broken arm as a result of the police department’s conduct, the lawsuit said.
The organizations, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society, are seeking monetary damages for 11 named plaintiffs, as well as reforms such as training officers to respect the rights of protesters and swift discipline for officers who used excessive force. They are also asking a court to declare the police department’s actions unconstitutional.
Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said it was important that the police department reform its response to protests immediately, with police preparing for possible demonstrations surrounding next week’s presidential election and advocates concerned that officers will let personal political views color their response.
“It’s imperative that there be a whole retraining of the police department that they have to respect the right to protest, and that their response to protest cannot be violence, cannot be abusive, and that they need to protect everybody’s rights,” said Lieberman.
The city is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, as well as Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, Chief of Department Terence Monahan and several police officers and sergeants.
De Blasio declined to comment Monday on the lawsuit’s specific complaints, but said there have been fundamental changes in police strategies in recent years aimed at avoiding confrontations.
“From what I’ve heard of the lawsuit’s allegation, it doesn’t sound right at all to me,” de Blasio said at his daily news briefing. “There’s been a conscious effort for seven years now to change the relationship between the NYPD and communities.”
The city’s Law Department said it will review the allegations in the complaint and respond in court.
Tens of thousands of people took to the city’s streets for mostly peaceful protests spurred by the May 25 police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis and other instances of police brutality.
Some smash-and-grab sprees and sporadic unrest led New York City officials to impose a citywide curfew for several days, which led to clashes between protesters and police officers attempting to clear the streets.
Governor Andrew Cuomo asked the state’s attorney general, Letitia James, to investigate whether NYPD officers used excessive force to quell unrest and enforce the curfew.
James said in a preliminary report in July that she had received more than 1,300 submissions from protesters and that most of the complaints involved NYPD officers using excessive force, “indiscriminate use of pepper spray, brandishing firearms at protesters, and pushing vehicles or bikes into protesters.”
Other complaints concerned “troubling arrest-related practices,” including the use of “extremely tight zip ties,” misgendering detainees and holding protesters in cramped cells.
Human Rights Watch, another civil rights organization, released a report last month citing evidence that police planned an aggressive crackdown on protesters on June 4 in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx.
According to the report, as well as video and witness accounts, police used bicycles to form a wall around protesters while officers, including some in riot gear, attacked demonstrators – beating them with batons, kicking and punching them, and spraying them with pepper spray. At least 61 people were hurt, with injuries including a broken nose, lost tooth, sprained shoulder, broken finger, split lip, black eyes and bruises.
In June, at the height of the protests, de Blasio was accused of gaslighting the city when he told reporters that he personally saw “no use of force around peaceful protests,” even after officers had been caught on video moving on demonstrators without provocation and bashing them with batons.
Few officers were disciplined. The ones that were included an officer suspended for shoving a woman to the ground on May 29 and an officer suspended for pulling a demonstrator’s mask down and spraying pepper spray on May 30. Both of those encounters were caught on camera.
“It’s time for the police department to stop acting like cops are incorrigible children and they have no control over them,” Lieberman said.
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