NEW YORK — State Attorney General Tish James is suing the NYPD over its response to the police brutality protests that swept the city last year, charging it has shown a pattern of excessive force and false arrests against protesters.
In a federal lawsuit filed Thursday against Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, Chief of Department Terence Monahan and the city, James asks for a court-appointed monitor to be installed to oversee the NYPD.
“What we found was an egregious abuse of police power, rampant excessive use of force and leadership unable and unwilling to stop it,” James said during a press conference Thursday.
The attorney general’s office investigated the NYPD’s handling of the protests and found that NYPD officers engaged in rampant use of batons, pepper spray and a tactic known as kettling to surround and hem in protesters. They also illegally arrested legal observers and medics, she alleges.
Her suit also seeks a court order declaring that the NYPD’s response to the protests was unconstitutional.
The mayor and police commissioner are personally responsible for the abuses that took place because they failed to properly train, supervise and discipline police officers despite a long history of improper NYPD protest response tactics, the attorney general charges.
“They did not train. They did not supervise. They did not stop officers who engaged in this misconduct. And they did not discipline them either," James said. "They failed the people of the city of New York."
Her investigation documented 155 separate incidents of officers using excessive or unreasonable force at the protests, which began in late May in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
That includes 50 incidents where police officers struck protesters with batons, 30 times they used pepper spray without justification, and 75 times they punched or shoved protesters, according to the suit. Some protesters were seriously injured in the attacks, suffering concussions, gashes to the head that required staples and stitches, a broken arm and a fractured eye socket.
After vandals looted businesses in Manhattan and the Bronx, de Blasio imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on the city. But James found that legal observers, medics and essential workers, who were exempt from the curfew, were nonetheless swept up in mass arrests.
“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,” says the complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan.
A separate probe by the city’s Department of Investigation found that a poorly prepared police force used overly aggressive tactics that heightened tensions around the protests. The NYPD response has also spurred several lawsuits, including a federal civil rights suit in which a group of protesters allege they were brutalized.
De Blasio said he will oppose the imposition of a monitor.
“I met with Attorney General James yesterday and we have a common goal: Continue to drive major police reforms. I couldn’t agree more that there are pressing reforms that must – and will – be made this year,” he said in a statement. “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.”
A court-appointed monitor is already in place to oversee the NYPD's use of stop and frisk, which a judge found unconstitutional in 2013.
The NYPD released a statement saying the department "welcomes reform" but that adding a federal monitor would not speed up that process.
In one incident detailed in the suit and captured on video, protester Andrew Smith was pepper sprayed directly in the face after a cop yanked off his mask to spray him.
“He attacked me while my hands were high up in the air. I was no threat. I was not being aggressive or hostile, but somehow I was still assaulted by the police,” he said.
Another man, Rayne Valentine, said he was walking to the subway after leaving work at Kings County Hospital when he saw police beating someone on the ground and began recording with his phone. An officer charged him and pushed him to the ground, where several officers beat him, causing a bloody head wound that required seven staples to close. When he said he was just trying to get home, an officer replied, “You picked the wrong time to do that.”
“I was terrified,” Valentine said. “I was viciously attacked and beaten by the very people who are supposed to protect me.”
The complaint charges that the NYPD’s use of kettling continued at Nov. 4 protests related to the presidential election near Washington Square Park and Union Square. Protesters trapped in a police cordon were arrested, including a medic’s aide who was punched by an officer and had a tooth knocked out.
While defending the actions of police officers, the president of the city police union agreed that the mayor and NYPD brass were to blame for the missteps.
“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,” said Police Benevolent Association Pat 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.”