Nearly 450 demonstrators arrested during last year’s police misconduct protests plan to sue the city — the highest number of potential lawsuits stemming from a single event since the mass arrests at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who is running for mayor, cited that potential cataract of First Amendment litigation Monday as he attacked the police reform plan Mayor Bill de Blasio released last week as useless in preventing over-the-top crackdowns on demonstrators. And he said that any lawsuit settlement payments should come straight from the NYPD’s budget.
“Your most recent ‘reform’ plan was all but silent on the need to fundamentally change the overly militarized, needlessly confrontational approach the NYPD has long taken towards protesters,” Stringer wrote in a letter to de Blasio. “This is a missed opportunity — both morally and fiscally.”
Protests erupted in New York following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis cops, as demonstrators rallied against police brutality and demanded racial justice in the wake of a growing number of killings of Black Americans by law enforcement officers across the nation.
In several confrontations with protesters, NYPD cops surrounded large groups of people and ordered them to disperse without giving them a way to do so — a tactic known as “kettling.” The mass arrests triggered a city Department of Investigation report that faulted the NYPD as ill-prepared to handle the demonstrations.
The comptroller said as of Monday his office had received “notices of claim” from 448 people arrested during protests between May 29 and Nov. 4, alleging they were subjected to violence while trying to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech.
That includes 144 from just one protest, a June 4 demonstration in The Bronx that ended mass arrests. Human Right Watch accused the NYPD of violating human rights law in the clash in Mott Haven.
A ‘Trajectory-Altering Moment’
Stringer noted that the scope of potential litigation rivals the flood of suits after NYPD made mass arrests of protesters at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
Nearly all the charges against those protesters were dismissed, and the city wound up paying out $18 million in settlements.
As THE CITY reported in December, the top NYPD official in charge of overseeing the department’s response to last summer’s protests, Chief of Department Terence Monahan, was cited for his handling of arrests during the 2004 RNC.
De Blasio recently announced Monahan would soon be leaving the department to become one of his top aides, helping with the city’s recovery from the pandemic.
In his letter Monday, Stringer took aim at the NYC Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Draft Plan de Blasio released Friday.
In that report, the mayor references the protests of last summer just once — promising to adopt the recommendations for changes at the NYPD outlined by DOI and a subsequent report by his Law Department. De Blasio also made clear he would be proposing more reforms before he leaves office Dec. 31.
Stringer noted “the vast majority” of the recommendations contained in the Department of Law and DOI reports “remain unimplemented,” and called for the mayor to take immediate steps to ensure the police do not repeat the mistakes of last summer.
“I urge the city to treat the summer of 2020 as a defining and trajectory-altering moment in its approach to public safety,” he wrote.
De Blasio Strikes Back
The comptroller also demanded that the NYPD disband its Strategic Response Group, a heavily armored unit originally formed to respond to terror attacks that was deployed repeatedly during last year’s protests.
The DOI report did not recommend scrapping the SRG, but advocated that officers in that unit be better trained to handle protests.
The comptroller also suggested requiring that a substantial portion of any settlement payment come directly out of the NYPD’s budget instead of the city’s general fund to give the department an incentive to minimize the overuse of force during protests.
Bill Neidhardt, a spokesperson for de Blasio, fired back at the comptroller.
“Either Scott Stringer missed the explicitly clear part of the report that stated this was the opening framing of the plan with more details to come or the candidate is merely trying to get a press hit for his campaign,” he said.