Criminal Justice

Letitia James headshot

New York Attorney General Letitia James in February 2020. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging that the New York City Police Department used “excessive force” against peaceful racial justice protesters last year.

The lawsuit alleges violations of the protesters’ First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights, parallel provisions in the New York Constitution, and the state’s common law. Defendants include New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and police officials.

The New York Times, the New York Law Journal and Law360 have coverage.

“There is no question that the NYPD engaged in a pattern of excessive, brutal and unlawful force against peaceful protesters,” James said in a press release. “No one is above the law—not even the individuals charged with enforcing it.”

The suit claims that police officials have failed to address a long-standing pattern of abuse during protests. Unconstitutional tactics last year included unjustified use of batons, pepper spray, bicycles and a crowd-control tactic known as “kettling,” the suit says.

Police also wrongly arrested legal observers, medics and others providing essential services, the suit alleges.

In one instance, the suit says, an officer struck protester Luke Hanna in the back of the head with a baton without provocation. Hanna required 10 stitches to his head.

In another instance, an officer pulled down the face mask of Andrew Smith and pepper-sprayed him in the face. After the incident, body camera footage showed the officer bragging, “I took the guy’s goggles, I ripped the s- – – off, and I used it.”

In another instance, police used kettling to trap and arrest protesters about several minutes before curfew, then did not let the protesters leave. At least 250 people were arrested for violating curfew, and several were shoved or hit with batons, the suit says.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had asked the state attorney general to investigate after violent clashes between the NYPD and protesters. A report found that unjustified use of force was so frequent and pervasive as to constitute custom or usage by the police department.

James is asking a court to declare that the NYPD’s practices were unlawful and to appoint a monitor to oversee policing practices at future protests.