New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaks during a press conference announcing a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA on August 06, 2020 in New York City.
Michael M. Santiago | Getty Images
New York Attorney General Letitia James on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department and New York City alleging that authorities used excessive force during the summer’s racial justice protests.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, calls for the NYPD to undertake systemic reforms to be overseen by an independent monitor. It also asks for a court to declare the police actions unlawful.
The 69-page filing includes allegations of dozens of excessive force violations accompanied by graphic photographs of individuals who it says were beaten and in some cases unlawfully detained by police.
“There is no question that the NYPD engaged in a pattern of excessive, brutal, and unlawful force against peaceful protesters,” James said in a statement accompanying the lawsuit.
“Over the past few months, the NYPD has repeatedly and blatantly violated the rights of New Yorkers, inflicting significant physical and psychological harm and leading to great distrust in law enforcement,” James said. “With today’s lawsuit, this longstanding pattern of brutal and illegal force ends. No one is above the law — not even the individuals charged with enforcing it.”
NYPD police officers watch demonstrators in Times Square on June 1, 2020, during a “Black Lives Matter” protest.
Timothy A. Clary | AFP via Getty Images
The lawsuit comes months after thousands gathered in New York to protest against police violence following the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. Floyd and Taylor, both Black, were killed by police and became symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a civil investigation into police misconduct after videos circulated showing violent confrontations between apparently peaceful demonstrators and law enforcement. The investigation ultimately uncovered 30 incidents in which police allegedly unlawfully used pepper spray, and 75 in which they allegedly used unreasonable force.
“When Defendants, starting in May 2020, chose to dispatch thousands of inadequately trained officers to large-scale protests challenging police conduct and authority, the results were predictable: mass arrests, excessive force, and other unlawful efforts to suppress the Protests,” the lawsuit reads.
“While many aggrieved protesters have sought monetary relief to remedy their injuries, this suit seeks solely declaratory and injunctive relief—relief that is imperative to ending NYPD’s decadeslong, unlawful practices in policing protests,” it says.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Thursday that he had met with the attorney general on Wednesday, “and we have a common goal: Continue to drive major police reforms.”
“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,” de Blasio said.
“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,” he added.
An NYPD spokesperson said the 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,” the spokesperson said.
A protester gestures at an NYPD officer during a “Black Lives Matter” demonstration on May 28, 2020 in New York City, in outrage over the death of a black man in Minnesota who died after a white policeman kneeled on his neck for several minutes.
Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images
One controversial practice the lawsuit zeroes in on is known as “kettling,” or corralling protesters and not allowing them to disperse, sometimes for hours. The suit says that protesters subject to the practice were unlawfully detained.
It also accuses police of routinely arresting essential workers for violating a curfew, despite the fact that they were exempt from it.
The suit says that in one instance, police arrested an overnight security guard, Zuleyka Morales, who wore a badge around her neck identifying her as an essential worker. According to the complaint, Morales decide to record a protest on her way to work after noticing that police were using significant force.
“As soon as she pressed record, Morales felt someone come from behind her and attack her, throwing her to the ground. While on the ground, she saw a NYPD Officer with three stripes on his sleeve, indicating the rank of sergeant, trying to physically restrain her,” the suit says.
The suit says that the officer and at least two others “struck her head against the sidewalk and street multiple times” as she tried to explain that she was an essential worker.
“While she was on the ground, at least one Officer obstructed her breathing by kneeling on her back and neck, so she said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Morales repeated this several times and feared for her life,” the suit says.
Morales was restrained with zip ties and arrested. Hours later, she lost consciousness and was transported to a hospital and diagnosed with hematoma of the head and bruising. She was returned to police custody, and released the following morning with a criminal summons for violating curfew, according to the lawsuit.
Morales is one of more than a dozen individuals named in the lawsuit as victims of alleged excessive force or unlawful detention. The suit says that excessive force violations formed a majority of the 1,646 allegations of police misconduct that were reported between May 28 and June 20.
“Defendants knew or should have known that NYPD Officers had a practice of using unconstitutionally excessive force to control and disperse protests yet did not enforce its policies to end that practice,” the suit says. “Upon information and belief, Defendants have not disciplined the vast majority of NYPD Officers who used excessive force against Protest attendees.”
The filing comes as Democrats compare the aggressive police tactics used during the racial justice protests to the failed efforts to keep a mob of President Donald Trump supporters from rampaging at the Capitol last week. The riot killed at least five people, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer.
“No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday there wouldn’t have been — they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol,” President-elect Joe Biden said last week in an address after the D.C. riot.
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