In 2020, the streets of some of the country’s largest cities were filled with Black Lives Matter demonstrators, shouting for justice after the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man whose life was taken while an officer tried to arrest him. New York, no stranger to protest marches, saw tens of thousands of people take to its streets over the course of several months.
Inevitably, those marching for justice and equal rights clashed with police. It resulted in thousands of arrests over the course of the year as additional protests ensured after the police shooting deaths of others like Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery by accused vigilantes in southeast Georgia.
As police confronted the unrest, further conflict erupted, which led to what activists and politicians called heavy handed policing and abuses of power. It also led to New York Attorney General Letitia James filing a lawsuit on January 14 against the NYPD and other parties, charging that officers caused major injuries to peaceful protesters and violated the civil rights of others who did nothing more than exercise their right to free speech and expression.
It’s one of several major lawsuits James has filed on behalf of the state of New York. Others include litigation against the National Rifle Association and an ongoing investigation into the financial dealings of former President Donald Trump’s organization.
The lawsuit against the NYPD, however, also names the City of New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, and NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan, and accuses all parties of failing to do the training and supervision necessary to prevent police misconduct against people who she says posed no threat.
“They were basically petitioning their government for change and racial reckoning,” said James, in an interview with BET.com. “Following the murder of George Floyd, we reviewed testimony of individuals and we've reviewed video and we were tasked with the responsibility of investigating police practices and their handling following those protests.
“We received more than 1,300 complaints and pieces of evidence shining a light on the NYPD's conduct,” she continued. “We held a three-day public hearing with testimony from more than 100 witnesses. We also heard the testimony of police commissioner [Dermot] Shea and his testimony stood in contrast to the testimony of those 100 witnesses. And after reviewing all of these complaints and evidence, there's no question that the NYPD blatantly violated the constitutional rights of New Yorkers and its own internal policies.”
The unrest was part of a litany of similar incidents in other cities across the nation. Through the warmer months, images of protestors crowding streets demanding justice not only for Floyd, Brooks, Taylor and Arbery, but for countless others whose names were not as well known. Politicians moved toward police reform legislation and themselves called for changes in federal and local policies that demand more accountability for officers who shoot unarmed people in the line of duty.
Despite the peaceful protests in many cities, some of the unrest morphed into looting and other damages. Places like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York saw millions of dollars in repairs needed during incidents of violence. But a study done by the U.S. Crisis Monitor shows that 93 percent of all of the protests that occurred last year were peaceful and those who participated rarely engaged in any violence or any type of destructive behavior.
James’ case against the NYPD notes that even though the demonstrators in New York were peaceful, they were met with aggressive police officers ironically while marching against police abuses.
“Officers inflicted significant physical harm on largely peaceful protestors, resulting in broken bones, gashes requiring stitches and staples, and concussions,” she said. “The evidence was...corroborated by reports that were conducted by corporate council and the [New York] Department of Investigation and to some extent even comments that were made by the police commissioner and the mayor of the city of New York.”
BET.com reached out to the NYPD about the lawsuit. Officials responded by sending a video of comments made by Police Commissioner Shea on local news station NY1 on Jan. 19. Shea did not speak directly about the lawsuit, but instead remarked on demonstrators who he said recently threw objects at police, blocked traffic and sprayed graffiti during a demonstration on Martin Luther King’s birthday in Brooklyn.
“This isn’t actions that are caused by police officers, so that’s a newsflash for the AG,” said Shea. “This is actions caused by people that want to destroy our way of life and our city.” He did say he would be willing to engage with the Attorney General but did not expound as far as any litigation.
Standing On Her Own
It should be known that what James is doing is unprecedented. Individuals often take legal action against police departments, attorney generals do not. In doing so, she serves as a motivator for police reform rather than restitution. A Feb. 2020 article in the Duke Law Journal notes that state attorneys general could be an instrument of reform if supported by legislature.
“Congress and the state legislatures should specifically confer standing upon state attorneys general to bring cases against police departments in federal court. Statutory standing is essential to ensure that state attorneys general have a reliable basis in law to act and that their efforts comport with other mechanisms for regulating police departments,” the article reads.
DeWitt Lacy, a Los Angeles-based civil rights attorney says this type of lawsuit is unique in its scope because it is fairly rare for state attorneys general to face off against a police department as large and powerful as the NYPD.
“It's a matter of having the right people in places of power or influence,” said Lacy. “Lots of time AGs don't want to step on the toes of the local DAs. I would hope others in AG offices would look at James and see how they can help make sure police are abiding by the regulations of law.”
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James says the state of New York is not seeking financial relief in the lawsuit, but rather requiring the NYPD to change the department’s approach in how it deals with peaceful protests, including a monitor to oversee its practices, much like the a federal monitor installed in response to unconstitutional “stop-and-frisk” practices.
“What we are seeking is broad injunctive relieve to address these longstanding and systemic problems at the NYPD,” James said. She believes the goal should be to focus on historic systemic problems within the department. “So, it calls for a reexamining, a rethinking of policing not only in New York City, but all across the country.”