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Updated: January 15, 2021, 12:00 PM

AG, Alleging Widespread Police Misconduct, Files Federal Suit

James: Response to Protests Unconstitutional


In a damning assessment of the NYPD’s response to last year’s protests, the state’s top law-enforcement official has filed a Federal lawsuit against top department officials and Mayor de Blasio, alleging that officers used excessive force and made unlawful arrests in “suppressing overwhelmingly peaceful” demonstrations.  

The suit seeks what State Attorney General Letitia James called “systemic reforms,” including renewed training for officers and the appointment of a monitor. It also seeks redress for what the suit claims was the NYPD’s violation of protesters’ constitutional rights to free speech and peaceful assembly and against the unreasonable use of force by police during last year's protests.

‘Blatant Use of Force’

The action, filed Jan. 14 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, alleges that the NYPD has for years and on numerous occasions used unjustifiable force to quell lawful dissent by residents and protesters. 

In announcing the filing, Ms. James said the 1,300 complaints and pieces of evidence her office had received in connection with the police response were further evidence that city and NYPD officials have not sufficiently addressed patterns of unlawful behavior by police. 

“We found that over the course of the protests...officers engaged in blatant use of excessive force and often misconduct, including the indiscriminate, unjustified and repeated use of batons, pepper spray, bicycles and a crowd-control tactic known as kettling, also referred to as containment, which caused significant physical harm,” all in violation of their First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights, she said. 

Ms. James said police also unlawfully detained and arrested legal observers, medical personnel and other essential workers in direct contravention of an executive order issued by Mayor de Blasio.

Besides the city generally, the suit names the Mayor, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea and Chief of Department Terence Monahan.

Mr. de Blasio, who said he had met with Ms. James the day before the suit was filed, said he was committed to reform policing in the city, including by implementing dozens of recent recommendations from the Department of Investigation, which followed its own probe into the NYPD’s response to the protests.

“That work is critical and is happening right now,” he said in a statement, but added that he was wary of additional oversight: “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.”

PBA Faults Leaders

In a statement issued shortly after the suit’s announcement, the Police Benevolent Association’s president, Patrick J. Lynch, blamed the city and police officials for what he and other union officials have for months said was an inexpert response to the protests

“We will say it again: what we witnessed in June was a failure of New York City's leadership. They sent cops out to police unprecedented protests and violent riots with no plan, no strategy and no support. 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,” he said.

The NYPD was reserved in response to the suit. 

“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 spokesperson said in a statement. “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 Attorney General, though, took her critique a step further, saying that the department’s reaction to the protests reflected established patterns of aggressive enforcement and that both the city and department seemed disinterested in installing and enforcing protocols and procedures to uphold residents’ right to protest.

“This is an institutional, systemic problem that must be addressed with proper training, with proper protocols and with discipline of those who violate the law,” she said. "What we saw was legal rights and protections tossed aside.”