A federal judge on Wednesday gave final approval to a settlement that will overhaul how the NYPD polices protests in the city going forward, over the objections of the department’s largest union.
Federal District Court Judge Colleen McMahon rejected arguments by the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) — the union representing 24,000 rank-and-file cops — that the settlement reached in September to the Payne v. De Blasio litigation would harm the public interest and the safety of police officers.
“There is simply no evidence, let alone substantial evidence, that the public interest would be disserved if the Settlement were approved,” McMahon wrote in her ruling.
That allows the settlement between the city, state Attorney General Letitia James, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Legal Aid Society to move forward. The lawsuit and settlement derived from the aggressive response by the NYPD to the 2020 protests following the chokehold death of George Floyd, at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Like other police departments around the country, the NYPD’s response to the Floyd protests produced visceral moments of hyper-aggressive policing that boomeranged around social media. Police officers were seen shoving, punching, pushing, and screaming at demonstrators. Cops also “kettled” protesters — surrounding individuals for long periods of time and refusing to let them leave — and two officers were captured on viral video driving their squad cars into a crowd.
Most officers have not faced discipline for their actions, despite the Civilian Complaint Review Board recommending it for dozens of cops for their actions.
“We know the NYPD cannot police itself, and we won’t let the PBA destroy a commonsense settlement to address the violence and reckless over-policing New Yorkers experienced firsthand when standing up for Black lives in the summer of 2020,” said Molly Biklen of NYCLU and Jennvine Wong of the Legal Aid Society in a statement. “We look forward to seeing these reforms unfold and will hold both the City and the NYPD accountable if its officers fail to implement these new and needed practices.”
The settlement will establish new “tiers” for policing protests based on the size, scope, and conditions of a given demonstration, with the aim of de-escalation to protect protesters’ First Amendment rights. Under the terms, the “default response to a protest cannot be a large deployment of officers.”
The agreement also bans police from kettling, wherein individuals or groups of people are encircled by police and closed in with the intent of arrest, even if there is no probable cause. Last year, the NYPD agreed to settle a lawsuit for millions of dollars over a kettling incident in the Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood during the protests in June 2020, agreeing to pay $21,500 each to hundreds of protesters, including legal observers.
The NYPD must also improve its treatment of members of the press covering protests, and cannot restrict their right to observe and record one. Members of the media cannot be arrested for covering a protest, and if an area is ordered evacuated, journalists would not be required to leave.
The NYPD will also have to hire a new “First Amendment Activity Senior Executive” at the role of Deputy Chief or higher, tasked with overseeing protest response, policy, and officer training, and the implementation and compliance with the reforms will be subject to oversight by an independent body.
“I am pleased with today’s decision to allow the terms of our agreement to move forward in full,” James said in a statement. “With these policing reforms, New Yorkers can exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully protest without fear, intimidation, or harm.”
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Liz Garcia, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams, said the settlement “helped us end costly and lengthy litigation.”
In a statement to NY1, PBA president Patrick Hendry said the settlement was “misguided.”
“The next time a peaceful protest is hijacked by rioters, the next time our roads, bridges, or subways are shut down by agitators, New Yorkers should remember that their city chose to encourage these disruptions by signing onto this misguided settlement,” Hendry said.
Unlike the PBA, the unions representing NYPD detectives and sergeants endorsed the agreement.