Attorney General Letitia James (Photo by Tsubasa Berg)
The long arm of the law came down today on the New York City Police Department (NYPD) today for its alleged pattern of using excessive force, and in particular, against protesters in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last May.
State Attorney General Letitia James today filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Southern District Court specifically charging the NYPD, the City of New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, and NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan with failing to address this long standing pattern of abuse by not properly training, supervising, and disciplining officers to prevent misconduct, despite knowledge and public admission that it violated the rights of New Yorkers.
James is asking the court for broad injunctive relief to address these longstanding and systemic problems at the NYPD. That relief includes, but is not limited to, installing a monitor to oversee the NYPD’s policing tactics at future protests and to oversee future compliance with the law, as well as a host of other reforms to address the problematic policies and training failures that are outlined in the complaint.
Additionally, the lawsuit seeks a court order declaring that the policies and practices that the NYPD used during these protests were unlawful.
Following the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, thousands of protesters took to the city streets to protest Mr. Floyd’s death, the killing of Breonna Taylor, and the larger pattern of unarmed Black people being killed by the police.
After several evenings of violent clashes between the NYPD and protesters, Governor Andrew Cuomo called on the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) to conduct a civil investigation into police misconduct during these incidents.
Since May 30, 2020, the OAG received more than 1,300 complaints and pieces of evidence through a dedicated online portal and phone and email hotlines. Attorney General James also held a three-day public hearing with testimony from more than 100 protesters, community-based organizations, elected officials, and NYPD Commissioner Shea. In addition to the public testimony, the OAG received more than 300 submissions of written testimony.
“There is no question that the NYPD engaged in a pattern of excessive, brutal, and unlawful force against peaceful protesters,” said James. “Over the past few months, the NYPD has repeatedly and blatantly violated the rights of New Yorkers, inflicting significant physical and psychological harm and leading to great distrust in law enforcement.”
In the complaint, James lays out dozens of examples of the NYPD’s blatant use of excessive force and other misconduct, since May 2020, including the indiscriminate, unjustified, and repeated use of batons, pepper spray, bicycles, and a crowd-control tactic known as “kettling” against peaceful protesters — all causing protesters significant physical harm.
In one instance, Luke Hanna, who was participating in a protest at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn on June 3, was struck in the back of the head with a baton without provocation or justification while complying with a police directive to disperse. The baton strike caused a gash so severe that Hanna required ten staples in his head to close it. Neither the officer who hit Hanna nor any other officer nearby sought or provided medical attention for Hanna’s wound, and Hanna was not arrested or charged with any crime.
In another instance, Andrew Smith, who was participating in a protest in Brooklyn on May 30, had his COVID-19 facemask pulled down without warning or cause by an officer and was pepper sprayed in the face. As a result of being pepper sprayed, Smith suffered a severe burning sensation to his eyes and face, exacerbation to eczema on the back of his neck that lasted for hours, and difficulty removing and wearing contact lenses for at least a week after the incident. Smith also suffered stress and fear that he had been exposed to COVID-19 when the officer removed his facemask.
Smith was not arrested or charged with any crime and did not receive medical aid from any of the officers nearby, in violation of NYPD policy. After the incident, body-worn camera footage captured the officer who sprayed Smith asking fellow officers whether they used their pepper spray and bragging, “I took the guy’s goggles, I ripped the s— off and I used it.”
“With today’s lawsuit, this long standing pattern of brutal and illegal force ends. No one is above the law — not even the individuals charged with enforcing it,” said James.
In a statement, de Blasio said he met with James yesterday and they have a common goal to drive major police reforms,” de Blasio 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,” he said.