New York City and its Police Department violated the civil rights of hundreds of individuals arrested and/or assaulted by officers patrolling the George Floyd protests last summer, state Attorney General Letitia James alleged in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.
The state’s top prosecutor is taking Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan and the NYPD to court on claims that the department’s response to the protests in May and June 2020 reflected the city’s purported failure to address a long history of past police abuses.
James said the demonstrations put on display “the very thing being protested — aggressive actions of law enforcement.” The lawsuit calls for an independent, court-appointed monitor to be installed to oversee NYPD responses to large-scale protests, as well as “systemic reforms” to ensure compliance.
De Blasio, in a statement to amNewYork Metro, argued that the lawsuit would not advance the city’s efforts to reform the NYPD any faster.”
“I met with Attorney General James yesterday and we have a common goal: Continue to drive major police reforms,” de Blasio said Thursday. “I couldn’t agree more that there are pressing reforms that must – and will – be made this year, including the major discipline reforms announced with my Obama Foundation pledge, all 30 of the recommendations from the DOI and Law Department reports, and more. That work is critical and is happening right now. A court process and the added bureaucracy of a federal monitor will not speed up this work. There is no time to waste and we will continue to press forward.”
Per a spokesperson, the NYPD provided this statement to amNewYork Metro: “The New York City Police Department welcomes reform and has embraced the recent suggestions by both the city’s 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.”
Thursday’s lawsuit was the culmination of an extensive investigation by James’ office, which included the assistance of former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Barry Friedman, an NYU professor and founder of its Policing Project.
The protests broke out across New York City in the days following the May 25 death of Floyd, who was choked to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in an incident caught on camera. Thousands were arrests during the New York protest, and there were documented incidents of police brutality — such as individuals being violently shoved to the pavement, pepper-sprayed without provocation, roughly arrested on the ground or put in harm’s way by NYPD vehicles traveling through crowds.
In the aftermath of the protests, Governor Andrew Cuomo tasked James with conducting an independent investigation into the police response. James heard testimony about police brutality during several days of virtual hearings held in June.
“What we found was an egregious abuse of police power; rampant, excessive use of force; and leadership unable or unwilling to stop it,” James said.
The NYPD response during the George Floyd protests, the attorney general alleged, continued a “pattern of using excessive force and making false arrests” to quell the demonstrations. Similar abuses, she said, occurred over the years at other public demonstrations, such as during the 2004 Republican National Convention near Madison Square Garden and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street Movement in Lower Manhattan.
During protests across New York between May and December 2020, James’ lawsuit said, NYPD officers unjustifiably attacked peaceful demonstrators with batons, pepper sprays and bicycles. Other officers also illegally engaged in “kettling,” which James said was an act of containment of protesters that also caused significant harm.
Additionally, officers at the scene arrested and/or unlawfully attacked legal observers, medics and other essential workers who were out after a week-long evening curfew was instituted in New York City in early June. These incidents happened in violation of de Blasio’s executive order which exempted these essential workers from the curfew’s mandates.
“In total, we found over 155 incidents of officers using excessive and unreasonable force against protesters,” the attorney general added. Thirty incidents involved the unlawful use of pepper spray; 50 people reported unlawful attacks with batons; and 75 others reported physical contact from police from punches to shoves.
Several individuals who were assaulted by police during the George Floyd protests spoke during James’ Jan. 14 press conference.
Andrew Smith had his face mask deliberately pulled down by a police officer, who then pepper-sprayed him. Smith believes the officer targeted him because he was Black, as the cop walked past several white demonstrators and sprayed him, though he did not provoke the officer.
“I trained all my life on how to survive interactions with police,” Smith said. “After my assault, it is clear that the foundation of the police force was not intended to protect Black people. He attacked me though I was not a threat.”
Luke Hannah had to get 10 staples to his head after an officer struck him with a baton without provocation while demonstrating at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn on Jan. 3.
Rayne Valentine said he was attacked by police officers on May 30 as he walked home from finishing his shift at a nearby hospital and recorded officers swinging batons at a man on the ground. The officers then charged him at beat him up, forcing Valentine to return to the hospital where he worked to get medical treatment.
“These incidents are as disturbing as they are unnecessary or unlawful,” James said.
After James issued a preliminary report in June recommending an independent commission be formed to provide direct oversight of the NYPD, the de Blasio Administration quickly rejected the idea. The administration claimed it had made strides in recent years in reforming the NYPD — including ending the use of stop-and-frisk, equipping officers with bodycams and instituting a neighborhood policing model.
In December, the city’s Department of Investigation issued a report on its investigation into the NYPD’s response during the George Floyd protests. The department found that the NYPD lacked a definitive strategy, and resorted to mass arrests, kettling and assault over other non-aggressive crowd control measures.
James said the city and NYPD had “ample ability and opportunity” in the past “to make changes to the leadership.”
“But time and time again, they did not,” she said. “They did not train, they did not supervise. They did not [discipline] officers who engaged in this misconduct. Instead, they failed the people of the City of New York.”
Read the entire lawsuit here.