NEW YORK — City police violated New Yorkers’ First Amendment rights by suppressing “overwhelmingly peaceful” protests over the death of George Floyd, New York State Attorney General Letitia James charged Thursday in a lawsuit.
James’ 69-page suit seeks a court-appointed monitor to manage an overhaul of NYPD practices at large demonstrations, which she says have devolved into police abuse for decades.
“From May 28, 2020, to Dec. 11, 2020, NYPD officers of various ranks . . . repeatedly and without justification used batons, fist strikes, pepper spray, and other physical force against New York residents at the protests,” says the suit in Manhattan federal court.
“Protesters — many of whom were never charged with any crime and were merely exercising their First Amendment rights — suffered concussions, broken bones, cuts, bruises and other physical injuries,” the suit says.
“The unlawful policing practices officers engaged in at these protests are not new. Instead, they are the latest manifestation of the NYPD’s unconstitutional policing practices.
“For at least the last two decades, the NYPD has engaged in the same unlawful excessive force and false arrest practices while policing large-scale protests.”
The attorney general received more than 1,300 complaints and pieces of evidence about NYPD’s response to the demonstrations. James’ court filing features photos of protesters’ injuries suffered at the hands of police officers.
James’ suit does not have the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said the additional oversight she seeks would interfere with ongoing NYPD reforms.
“A court process and the added bureaucracy of a ... monitor will not speed up this work. There is no time to waste, and we will continue to press forward,” de Blasio said in a statement.
The mayor faced scathing criticism for his defense of the NYPD during the summer protests. He reversed himself in December, saying, “I look back with remorse. I wish I had done better.”
James faulted de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea for not calming the violence.
“We know they saw it all. We all saw it,” James said. “These incidents are as disturbing as they are unnecessary and unlawful.”
NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence & Counterterrorism John Miller doubted that James’ suit met the legal standards required for a court to appoint independent oversight of the department.
Protesters who spoke at a news conference announcing the suit said police beatdowns left them bloody, traumatized and outraged by the NYPD’s lack of accountability.
“I think I was assaulted by an irresponsible officer because that officer was sure he or she would get away with it,” said Luke Hanna.
An officer allegedly hit Hanna with a baton on June 3 as he followed an order to disperse protesters in downtown Brooklyn. Hanna needed 10 staples on his head.
The suit comes a month after the city’s Department of Investigation released a blistering report admonishing the department for lacking a “clearly defined strategy” in its handling of citywide protests over Floyd’s death.
The department’s lack of preparation “contributed to problems that then escalated tensions,” the 111-page probe said.
Thousands of people took to the streets in outrage over the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis, sparking on-camera clashes between protesters and police. In one notorious incident, a cop shoved a woman near the Barclays Center, giving her a concussion. That officer was charged with assault.
James singled out another episode in which a cop pulled down a protester’s goggles, pepper-sprayed him in the eyes, then bragged about it to his brothers in blue.
Officers in riot gear fought and arrested hundreds of demonstrators and arrested some looters who stole from businesses in Manhattan and the Bronx. The suit singled out the NYPD for excessive force, unlawful detention and the use of “kettling,” in which large groups of protesters are corralled and arrested without being given a chance to disperse.
The head of the city’s biggest police union said James’ suit should target city political leaders rather than rank-and-file cops.
“We will say it again: What we witnessed in June was a failure of New York City’s leadership.,” said Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch.
“They sent cops out to police unprecedented protests and violent riots with no plan, no strategy and no support,” said Lynch. “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.”
The Department of Investigation recommended the NYPD create a protest response unit to coordinate with the Community Affairs Bureau to handle large protests.
Shea said he intended to incorporate the Investigation Department’s recommendations into future department policies and training.