NYPD officers engaged in “excessive” use of force during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota last year, including brutal and violent use of department-issued bicycles, the state’s highest law enforcement officer charged in a bombshell lawsuit filed on Thursday.
In a 69-page federal court filing, Attorney General Letitia James laid out a broad case against the NYPD for “repeatedly and without justification” using “batons, bicycles, Oleoresin Capsicum spray (also known as pepper spray), body strikes, overly tight zip-ties, cars, and Tasers.” in the almost entirely peaceful protests that began in late May. Such practices violate the state and federal constitutions.
As a result, James is seeking a monitor to oversee the NYPD, not only at future protests, but in general. And she wants the federal court to declare NYPD’s protest practices unlawful.
James’s suit [read it here] called out the Strategic Response Group, whose “officers are trained to use crowd control techniques and strategies, such as kettling, mass arrests, and the deployment of bicycle squads to perform disorder control.”
James’s suit charges the NYPD, the city, Mayor de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea and NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan for “failing to address this longstanding 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’s office said in a statement. (No specific cops were named in the suit.)
Reading the lawsuit is like reading a dystopian novel set in a brutal police state (suit embedded below). Overall, James’s suit claims that officers “struck protesters with blunt instruments at least 50 times, unlawfully deployed pepper spray against protesters in at least 30 incidents, and used unreasonable force through pushing or striking protesters at least 75 times.”
The suit cited several examples of excessive and “unconstitutional” force specifically by the SRG, including:
- On May 28, Hannah Lillevoy was injured in a protest in Union Square after “a line of NYPD officers formed a barrier with their bicycles [then] three officers repeatedly rammed the frames of their bicycles into protesters standing on the sidewalk, pushing Lillevoy onto and over a concrete barrier on the sidewalk. As this happened, the front wheel of the bicycle dragged across the back of her head and arm.” She suffered bruises, despite the fact that “the protesters rammed by the bicycles did not present any threat of harm to the NYPD officers, … were not resisting or evading arrest, and were not charged with any crime.”
- One day later, state Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assembly Member Diana Richardson were also injured when SRG cops used their bicycles improperly at a protest at the Barclays Center, the suit argues. “NYPD officers ordered protesters to move back. … As protesters began to comply, NYPD officers pushed their bicycle frames against the crowd, hitting Senator Myrie’s back and legs and Assembly Member Richardson’s lower abdomen and legs.” Myrie and Richardson were then pepper sprayed for no reason, the suit continued.
- On June 3 in Midtown, “NYPD officers blocked protesters with their bicycle frames from leaving the protest zone. Within minutes, dozens of NYPD officers charged into protesters from all sides and used excessive force while making unlawful arrests.”
- On June 4 in Williamsburg, “NYPD officers blocked the protest’s path with their bicycle frames,” then cops issued “contradictory” instructions, causing a stampede before cops started “indiscriminately throwing protesters to the ground, beating them with batons, and arresting them,” the suit alleges.
- On the same night in the Bronx, protesters were met with “a layer of NYPD officers on bicycles blocking their path, and another layer of NYPD officers with vehicles behind them. [The officers then] “used their bicycles as weapons to push back protesters who attempted to leave the protest zone with significant force and without provocation. NYPD officers indiscriminately used pepper spray against groups of protesters and hit protesters with batons while making arrests.”
The violence against New Yorkers did not end with the summer, according to the suit. “NYPD officers continued to use their bicycles to aggressively push back and surround peaceful protesters on Nov. 5.”
James’s suit also mentions misuse of police squad cars — including using cars to push back protesters. But the lawsuit makes no mention of a much-photographed incident on Flatbush Avenue early in the protests in May in which two NYPD squad cars were used as battering rams against protesters — an incident that even Mayor de Blasio had called “troubling.”
James’s suit follows an investigation by the city’s Department of Investigation late last year, which found that department practices were poor and had “produced excessive enforcement.” Mayor de Blasio had long defended most of the police department’s tactics, even when they came under fire from witnesses, investigators and the media, including a painstaking review of police incidents by the New York Times that laid bare what was happening on the street.
But after the DOI report, he did accept the blame.
“I look back with remorse,” he said at the time of the DOI report. “I wish I had done better. I want everyone to understand that. And I’m sorry I didn’t do better.”
After initial publication of this story, the NYPD sent of a statement through a spokesperson:
The New York City Police Department welcomes reform and has embraced the recent suggestions by both the city’s Department of Investigation and the city’s Law Department. 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.