New York state Attorney General Letitia James sued the city of New York, the mayor and the police department's leaders on Thursday alleging that officers had committed civil rights abuses for years, including at protests last summer over the death of George Floyd, and seeking the appointment of an independent monitor.
The "landmark lawsuit" filed in federal court names Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea and Chief of Department Terence Monahan as defendants and outlines years of excessive force and false arrests, most recently during racial justice protests last year stemming from the killing of Floyd, a Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody, James said.
"As the demonstrations continued, the very thing being protested — aggressive actions of law enforcement — was on public display," James said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.
It marked the first time in history that the state attorney general has sued the police department, James's office said.
James wants a monitor to oversee the department's policing tactics at future protests and a court order to declare that the policies and practices the department used during protests last year were unlawful. She is also seeking reforms to address what she described as "the problematic policies and training failures that are outlined in the complaint."
The police department is already under a federal monitor overseeing reforms after its stop-and-frisk policy was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.
James was tasked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo with investigating the police department's handling of protests sparked by Floyd's death. James said Thursday that her office's civil investigation found "an egregious abuse of police power, rampant excessive use of force and leadership unable and unwilling to stop it."
"That's why we are seeking systemic reforms to the NYPD and the installation of a monitor to oversee the NYPD's policing tactics in future protests and to ensure they are complying with the law," James said. "With today's lawsuit, this longstanding pattern of brutal and illegal force ends."
Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that from May 28, 2020, to Dec. 11, 2020, officers of various ranks "repeatedly and without justification used batons, fist strikes, pepper spray, and other physical force" against protesters.
James said officers also used bicycles and a crowd-control tactic known as "kettling" or "containment," which she said caused significant harm.
In October, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society sued the city on behalf of 11 protesters who said that they were assaulted and abused by police and that their civil rights were violated.
"The NYPD's use of force and certain crowd control tactics to respond to the Floyd protests produced excessive enforcement that contributed to heightened tensions," the Department of Investigation said in the executive summary of its 111-page report.
De Blasio had asked for the investigation after videos showing police officers dousing protesters, elected officials and journalists with chemical irritants, shoving a woman to the ground and, in one instance, driving police vehicles into them.
De Blasio, who repeatedly defended the police department's conduct during the protests, said in December that he agreed with the report's findings and that it "makes very clear we've got to do something different, and we've got to do something better."
Legal observers, medics and other essential workers were among those detained and arrested without probable cause, James said Thursday. Those arrests, she said, "we're in direct violation of the executive order that was issued" by de Blasio.
In response to the lawsuit, de Blasio said that he met with James on Wednesday and that they share the goal of pushing for major police reforms.
"I couldn't agree more that there are pressing reforms that must — and will — be made this year, including the major discipline reforms announced with my Obama Foundation pledge, all 30 of the recommendations from the DOI and Law Department reports, and more," de Blasio said. "That work is critical and is happening right now."
However, he did not agree a lawsuit or monitor was the answer.
"A court process and the added bureaucracy of a federal monitor will not speed up this work," de Blasio said. "There is no time to waste and we will continue to press forward."
A spokesperson for the police department said it "welcomes reform and has embraced the recent suggestions by both the city's Department of Investigation and the city's Law Department” but that 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."
Patrick Lynch, the president of the city's Police Benevolent Association, blamed a "failure of New York City's leadership" for sending police "to 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," Lynch said.
The lawsuit states: "Protesters — many of whom were never charged with any crime and were merely exercising their First Amendment rights — suffered concussions, broken bones, cuts, bruises, and other physical injuries."
Multiple people spoke virtually during the news conference, recounting abuse they said they experienced at the hands of officers.
"The NYPD and its senior leaders failed to address this longstanding pattern of abuse by not properly training, supervising, and disciplining officers to prevent misconduct, despite knowing and publicly admitting that it violated the rights of New Yorkers," James said.
"No one is above the law — not even the individuals charged with enforcing it," James said Thursday.
It is past time, she said, for meaningful change.
James said that she does not think that every police officer is "problematic" and that she has family members and close friends whom she deeply respects who are current or former members of the force.
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"I know that many officers have the best intentions to protect New Yorkers and bring communities together," she said. "But we have a problem that is bigger than any one officer and 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."
In a joint statement, the NYCLU and Legal Aid Society said: "We hope this will be the beginning of a serious reckoning over police violence and militarized use of force against protesters, especially people of color, and a check on the impunity many officers have come to see as their right."
Legal Aid attorney Corey Stoughton applauded the lawsuit.
"The NYPD has shown itself to be really intransigent in changing deeply rooted practices," Stoughton said in an interview Thursday. "We see that in the stop-and-frisk litigation, which has been under a federal monitorship for over six years now."
There are still significant racial disparities in the stop-and-frisk policy and ongoing problems getting officers to document stops, which is essential to understanding the scope of the problem, Stoughton said.
What is encouraging about the lawsuit, Stoughton said, is that it brings into play the power of state government in trying to bring about change and "sends a very strong signal to the city's leadership and to police leadership — that there is a deep, deep problem here that requires change."