Law360, New York (January 14, 2021, 7:03 PM EST) -- The New York attorney general on Thursday sued the NYPD in Manhattan federal court, accusing the nation's largest police force of using "brutal force against protesters" and violating their rights with a "pattern of false arrests" as it sought a court-appointed monitor to institute reforms.
Alleging a "long-standing pattern of abuse," Attorney General Letitia James said NYPD brass and Mayor Bill de Blasio had failed to properly train, supervise and discipline officers despite knowing that they had violated the civil rights of New Yorkers for years, including during nationwide protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
The lawsuit comes in the wake of hundreds of civil claims filed by protesters against the city, but just one criminal prosecution of a New York City police officer. The allegations against police are supported by a flood of online videos showing police beating and arresting protesters during demonstrations against police brutality and racism.
During a news conference Thursday, James said her investigation found "an egregious abuse of police power, rampant excessive use of force and leadership unable and unwilling to stop it." She said her office received 1,300 complaints and pieces of evidence, 300 written submissions, and heard more than 100 people testify at a 17-hour public inquiry that featured former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch as a special adviser.
"In total, we found over 155 incidents of officers using excessive and unreasonable force against protesters," James told reporters. "We found that the NYPD arrested or detained hundreds of protesters, legal observers, medics and others without legal justification and in clear violation of the emergency executive orders from the mayor." The lawsuit does not name any of the officers involved.
City leaders and police officials, however, applauded themselves for their work during the protests, James said, noting that the police commissioner said the NYPD "had a plan which was executed nearly flawlessly."
The city has a history of violence against protesters, James said, citing money damages awarded for police actions against protesters over the past two decades, including amid anti-war protests in 2003, the Republican national convention in 2004 and Occupy Wall Street in 2011.
For those reasons, the attorney general said, the lawsuit seeks to appoint a monitor to enforce reforms to "how the NYPD responds to large-scale protests."
In response, the mayor panned the lawsuit even as he voiced support for reforms and recommendations made by the city law department and the city's corruption watchdog, the Department of Investigation.
"I met with Attorney General James yesterday and we have a common goal: Continue to drive major police reforms," de Blasio said in a statement to Law360. "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."
A spokesperson for the police force said that "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."
The 69-page complaint features 11 claims, including violations of the U.S. Constitution and New York Constitution for excessive force, unlawful detentions and arrests, and infringing on free speech and press freedoms as well as claims for assault, battery, false imprisonment, negligence and negligent supervision.
The attorney general seeks a court order halting the use of the NYPD's policies and actions in dealing with protests and a declaration that they are unconstitutional under both state and U.S. constitutions as well as under New York tort law.
The attorney general's lawsuit comes in the wake of hundreds of civil legal actions filed against the city in connection with the way police handled the protests — officials identified over 400 filings seeking monetary damages against the NYPD and its officers for incidents related to protests in 2020, according to a list of notices of claim last updated Jan. 11 that was obtained by Law360 from a Freedom of Information Law request Thursday.
A review of the more than 400 claim notices apparently filed by individuals, not businesses, showed they stemmed from incidents in Manhattan, 186; the Bronx, 147; Brooklyn, 69; Queens, 1; and 10 others unspecified.
But despite the civil actions and the attorney general's 155 cataloged incidents of police abusing protesters this summer, there is scant evidence of criminal prosecutions to match those numbers in the corresponding jurisdictions. A survey of the city's prosecutors offices on Thursday turned up only one case in which an officer had been criminally charged — an incident that was caught on film and went viral on social media.
The Brooklyn district attorney charged Officer Vincent D'Andraia with misdemeanor assault for violently shoving Dounya Zayer, a young woman who had previously testified at the attorney general's June hearing alongside video of the attack. She has since filed her own lawsuit against the city. A spokesperson for the Brooklyn DA's office, Oren Yaniv, said "a number of other incidents are under investigation."
Danny Frost, a spokesperson for the Manhattan DA's office said prosecutors in his office were "reviewing a number of incidents" and had not received any referrals from the attorney general.
Patrice O'Shaughnessy, a spokesperson for the Bronx DA's office, said, "We are continuing to review allegations of excessive force or misconduct related to the June 4 protest in Mott Haven. Anyone with information should contact our Public Integrity Bureau."
Yaniv noted that Brooklyn prosecutors had combed through social media for evidence of police misconduct but that there was a high bar for criminal prosecution. He said his office would welcome further information from the attorney general's investigation on the identities of police officers involved in the alleged assaults — the lawsuit does not name any individual officers involved in the 155 incidents.
"Obviously, we can't prosecute without an identification," Yaniv said.
But prosecutors have yet to act against officers identified in protesters' notices of claim, said Gideon Orion Oliver, who represents 150 clients in their civil actions against the city together with his co-counsel, Elena Cohen of Cohen & Green PLLC.
Hospital worker Rayne Valentine, who was featured as a victim of police violence at the attorney general's news conference on Thursday, has identified the officer who beat him so badly after he filmed six officers beating another man that Valentine said he needed "seven staples to close the gash in my head." That officer has not been charged, Oliver, Valentine's attorney, noted.
"The fact that there's so much evidence that so many police officers engaged in brutality," Oliver said, "tells you a lot about [prosecutors'] will to hold any of the officers accountable and shows you one reason why police keep brutalizing protesters with impunity."
An NYPD spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for information on how many officers have been disciplined for misconduct during the protests or whether any other officers have been charged.
A spokesperson for the attorney general said that while the lawsuit is strictly a civil action, the office will investigate and pursue any criminal actions in tandem with other law enforcement agencies, if need be.
The state is represented by Jessica Clarke, Lillian Marquez, Morenike Fajana, Travis England and Gregory Morril of the Office of the New York State Attorney General.
Counsel information for the city was not immediately available.
The case is People of the State of New York v. City of New York et al., case number 1:21-cv-00322, in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York.
--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.
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