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NYPD commissioner defends police response at MLK march

"This is actions caused by people that want to destroy our way of life and our city and we're not going to let it happen,” New York City's police commissioner said.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day Protest In New York
The groups calling for racial and social justice peacefully marched from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to City Hall where they were met with a large group of NYPD officers.Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Just days after the New York City Police Department was sued by the state attorney general over what she said was a long-standing pattern of abuse of protesters, it is facing criticism over its response to a march held Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

"Less than a week after I filed a lawsuit against the @NYPDnews for using excessive force against peaceful protesters, last night we saw officers exhibit the same concerning behavior," Attorney General Letitia James tweeted Tuesday. "As we laid out in our lawsuit, this is a longstanding pattern that must stop."

James' lawsuit includes dozens of examples of alleged misconduct during the demonstrations after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

James said people were marching Monday night "in the spirit of Dr. King, who taught us that peaceful protest is the most powerful force in the fight for freedom, equality, and justice for all" and that she "will continue to fight to protect this most basic right."

Videos posted to social media showed people clashing with police at a march that began at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Protesters were met by police after they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge.

James asked anyone with photos, videos or eyewitness accounts of interactions with police to contact her office.

Police Commissioner Dermot Shea defended the police response in an interview with the news channel NY1.

"When you march from Brooklyn over a bridge, you try to shut down the traffic on the bridge," he said Tuesday. "You're bringing bottles. You're bringing graffiti. You're spray-painting our city. This is our city. You're spray-painting to burn our city down."

"This isn't actions that are caused by police officers, so that's a news flash for the AG," Shea said. "This is actions caused by people that want to destroy our way of life and our city and we're not going to let it happen,” he said.

At least 29 people were arrested Monday on a range of charges, including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and blocking a roadway, NY1 reported. Shea told the news station one officer had a bottle thrown at his head, which hit his helmet. He said that 11 officers were hurt but that none of their injuries were believed to be serious.

The police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Isabelle Leyva, a New York City resident who posted videos of the march on Twitter, said she stayed on the sidewalk and documented it for most of the night. She said she was on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge and witnessed dozens of police cars lined up waiting for the crowd.

The protesters crossed the roadway and headed into the public area of City Hall Park, she said in an interview Tuesday.

Riot cops formed a line and started playing a roadway dispersal order, she said.

"At that point, a small group broke away from the crowd and was standing on the roadway a few feet off of the sidewalk," Leyva said. "Riot police then charged the crowd and ran onto the sidewalk to beat and arrest people."

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She said police "continued this pattern for the rest of the night, grabbing anyone who stepped off of the sidewalk and then charging the entire group."

At one point, she said, riot cops were in the plaza itself with barricades and batons out playing a roadway dispersal order even though no one was in the road. She said they charged the crowd at least six times.

As part of the lawsuit filed last week in federal court, James is seeking a court-appointed monitor to oversee the department's policing tactics at future protests and a court order declaring that the policies and practices the department used during the protests after Floyd's death were unlawful.