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New York State Sues NYPD Over Its Handling Of 2020 Racial Justice Protests

Shouting protesters face NYPD officers during a Black Lives Matter demonstration last summer in New York City, in outrage over the death of a Black man in Minnesota who died after a white policeman knelt on his neck for several minutes.
Johannes Eisele
AFP via Getty Images
Shouting protesters face NYPD officers during a Black Lives Matter demonstration last summer in New York City, in outrage over the death of a Black man in Minnesota who died after a white policeman knelt on his neck for several minutes.

Updated at 3 p.m. ET

New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed a lawsuit against the New York City Police Department, citing "a pattern of using excessive force and making false arrests against New Yorkers during peaceful protests" that sought racial justice and other changes.

The Black Lives Matter movement and other activists organized large protests across the country last year, after the Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Demonstrations grew over similar incidents, including the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky.

James' office says it has received "more than 1,300 complaints and pieces of evidence" about the police response to the protests in New York City. It's now seeking a court order "declaring that the policies and practices that the NYPD used during these protests were unlawful."

Along with the court order, the attorney general is asking for policy reforms and a monitor to oversee the NYPD's tactics and handling of future protests.

The NYPD has been sharply criticized over a number of its officers' actions in the past year. A video last May apparently showed police SUVs surging into a crowd that had surrounded them during a protest in Brooklyn. In another incident, an officer drew his gun and pointed it at a crowd of people.

And in July, plainclothes officers were seen on video as they "aggressively detained a woman at a protest and hauled her away in an unmarked vehicle," as NPR reported.

"There is no question that the NYPD engaged in a pattern of excessive, brutal, and unlawful force against peaceful protesters," James said. "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."

"With today's lawsuit," James said, "this longstanding pattern of brutal and illegal force ends. No one is above the law — not even the individuals charged with enforcing it."

The police actions broke state and federal law, James says. The lawsuit alleges that New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea and NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan "failed to prevent and address the pattern or practice of excessive force and false arrests by officers against peaceful protesters in violation of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution" as well as state laws.

After the lawsuit was filed, NYPD and de Blasio made similar statements, saying plans to reform the police department are already under way.

"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," a department spokesperson said via email. "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 Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York also issued a statement, blaming the city's leadership for problems at the protests.

"They sent cops out to police unprecedented protests and violent riots with no plan, no strategy and no support," PBA President Patrick J. Lynch said.

New York's attorney general announced the lawsuit against the NYPD Thursday morning in a virtual news conference that began shortly before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his annual State of the State address. Cuomo called on James — who is elected, not appointed – to investigate NYPD's response to the protests last May.

"Last night, we saw disturbing violent clashes amid protests in Brooklyn," Cuomo said when he announced his request for an inquiry. He added, "The public deserves answers and accountability."

Last June, the NYPD suspended at least two officers for their behavior during protests, including an officer who was captured on video pushing a woman to the ground in Brooklyn. Another officer was punished for "pulling down an individual's face mask in Brooklyn and spraying pepper spray at him," as ABC7 New York reported.

Human Rights Watch, an independent watchdog group, issued a report last year on the police misconduct in Brooklyn. According to the report, clearly identified medics and legal observers were among those zip-tied and beaten by police in a response that was "intentional, planned, and unjustified."

The lawsuit says the police department sent thousands of poorly trained officers to cope with large-scale protests, resulting in mass arrests and attempts to suppress demonstrations. It also says the NYPD made a practice out of "kettling" — corralling people by using physical force and obstructions — to arrest protesters rather than allowing crowds to disperse.

As the Gothamist website reports:

"The NYPD has already been under the oversight of a federal monitor for more than six years. The federal monitor, Peter Zimroth, was ordered by the court to oversee sweeping stop-and-frisk reforms. The department's work to reform stop-and-frisk practices, and address racial biases in policing, is ongoing. The monitor has not yet deemed the NYPD to be fully in compliance with reforms."

A Minnesota judge ruled this week that Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who kept his knee on Floyd's neck for several minutes, will stand trial alone when proceedings begin in March. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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