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Updated: September 6, 2023

NYPD to change how officers respond to protests as part of legal settlement

By Samantha Max

The NYPD has agreed to overhaul how it responds to protests as part of a proposed settlement filed Tuesday to resolve lawsuits brought by Attorney General Letitia James, the Legal Aid Society, the New York Civil Liberties Union and individuals who claimed that police violated their rights during citywide Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

The lawsuits claimed that police used excessive force, made illegal arrests and violated protesters’ First Amendment rights during mostly peaceful demonstrations across the city following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. James and police watchdog agencies have issued scathing reports accusing the department of widespread misconduct during the protests.

If approved by a judge, the settlement would include reform measures that are meant to improve the way the NYPD responds to civil demonstrations. The agency has agreed to create a new oversight committee that will assess how police act at protests, whose membership will include representatives from the attorney general’s office, NYCLU and the Legal Aid Society. Police have also agreed to stop using a controversial tactic known as “kettling,” when officers surround protesters and leave them with no path to escape before a mass arrest.

Molly Biklen, deputy legal director for NYCLU, said she expects the latest agreement to spark a cultural shift within the nation’s largest police force, which could inspire other cities to follow suit.

“It shows their commitment to this process of embracing this new way of policing protests,” she said in an interview. “We’ll work through the oversight period to make sure that’s actually happening.”

Other terms of the proposed settlement include:

  • A new system that will standardize how officers are deployed to demonstrations and require them to use de-escalation tactics before deciding whether to send more officers to the scene
  • New limits on the department’s Strategic Response Group, a special NYPD unit that responds to protests and has faced scrutiny for its handling of peaceful demonstrations
  • Changes to the department’s disciplinary matrix, which provides guidelines for punishment when officer violate NYPD policy
  • A new position in the NYPD to oversee the department’s response to protests
  • Allocations of $1.625 million to the city’s Department of Investigation, which examines the NYPD, $1.45 million to the plaintiffs so they can help to establish the oversight committee
  • Policies to bar officers from preventing members of the media from observing or recording in public areas.

“Too often peaceful protesters have been met with force that has harmed innocent New Yorkers simply trying to exercise their rights,” James said in a press release. “Today’s agreement will meaningfully change how the NYPD engages with and responds to public demonstrations in New York City.”

Protests spark litigation, civilian complaints

In the late spring and early summer of 2020, thousands of people flooded the streets of New York City to protest police brutality. James, the Department of Investigation and the Civilian Complaint Review Board all issued reports highlighting concerns about the NYPD’s response and urged the department to implement changes.

Protesters filed hundreds of lawsuits and civilian complaints, describing chaotic scenes with police driving through crowds, indiscriminately spewing pepper spray, breaking bones with baton strikes and numbing demonstrator's hands with tight zip ties.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates some allegations of police misconduct, found that at least 146 members of service who responded to the protests broke department policy — though internal challenges and disputes with the NYPD made it difficult for the oversight agency to probe many allegations against officers.

Tuesday’s proposed settlement follows several big-dollar payouts to protesters who claimed police violated their rights. In March, the city agreed to pay more than $21,000 to hundreds of protesters who were trapped and assaulted by police at a demonstration in Mott Haven. Over the summer, the city settled another class-action lawsuit, agreeing to pay $10,000 each to more than 1,000 people arrested during protests in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Mayor Eric Adams praised the agreement in a video statement he released Tuesday afternoon, citing his own efforts to reform the NYPD in the past, including testifying against racial disparities in the department’s use of stop and frisk when he was a state senator. Pedestrian stops have increased since Adams took office, and they have disproportionately targeted people of color, though the stops rarely turn up a weapon or result in an arrest or summons.

“As mayor, I’m committed to improving our policies to keep New Yorkers safe and protect their civil liberties,” Adams said. “Safety and justice go hand in hand.”

NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban said the 2020 protests posed “unique challenges” for police who tried to protect people’s rights to peaceful expression while also responding to unlawful behavior.

“Now, the NYPD has re-envisioned its policies for policing protests to deal with these unique scenarios,” he said in a press release issued by the mayor’s office. “This agreement represents the department’s commitment to continually improving to ensure the public remains safe and individual rights are protected.”

But the Police Benevolent Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, said it would not join the agreement, citing serious concerns about its potential impact on officer safety. PBA President Patrick Hendry said about 400 officers were hurt during the 2020 protests and warned that the changes laid out in the proposed settlement could “encourage future violence.”

Tahanie Aboushi, who represented some of the protesters whose cases were resolved in the settlement, said she is “cautiously hopeful” that the agreement will improve how the NYPD responds to demonstrations. But she noted that past settlements involving the police response to civil disobedience during the 2004 Republican National Convention and Occupy Wall Street did not solve the problems that often arise when police descend on protest.

“The concept of the first amendment rights being threatened by police presence and brutality has been an issue before the courts before,” she said. “We’re hoping that with the NYPD’s commitment, that they’re acknowledging that there’s work to be done and things can be better.”

Corey Stoughton with the Legal Aid Society said the NYPD’s instinct when responding to protests has long been to “be there and be there in force.” With this agreement, she said, the department and police reform advocates tried to find long-term solutions that would prevent future waves of civil rights violations and mass-lawsuits.

“The hope is that today’s agreement stops that cycle,” she said.

This story has been updated with additional information.