A federal judge has allowed a group of cases alleging police brutality and violations of constitutional rights stemming from the 2020 protests in New York City to proceed after shooting down the city’s request to dismiss them.
In a 45-page decision, Judge Colleen McMahon ruled on Friday that the six consolidated cases, including one filed by state Attorney General Letitia James, can continue in federal court. The suits allege that the NYPD violated the constitutional rights of people protesting the murder of George Floyd, through a number of tactics that included excessive force and the use of “kettling,” which entrapped protesters. Attorneys argue this made it impossible for protesters to leave the demonstration, subsequently putting them in violation of an 8 p.m. curfew in effect at the time. Protesters also claimed the curfew violated their civil rights.
The protests became the subject of a probe by the city Department of Investigation, which found the NYPD mishandled the protests by deploying officers who lacked proper training in demonstrations and relying on shoddy intelligence.
McMahon ruled that protesters have enough of a legitimate claim of excessive force for a jury to hear them out, despite arguments from city attorneys claiming that recent NYPD reforms should be enough to have these cases dismissed. Some of those reforms include a new disciplinary matrix designed to formalize punishment guidelines against officers found to have committed misconduct.
"A majority of the so-called voluntary reforms – which include a new disorder control training for officers, several draft policies that are not yet in effect, and other initiatives marked as 'in progress' are not finalized," McMahon wrote, noting "Defendants’ 'prospective intentions do not eradicate the effects' of the alleged unconstitutional policing."
McMahon agreed that the treatment of protesters last summer was not exactly a "one-off," but a longstanding practice against the treatment of protesters dating back two decades.
J. Remy Green, an attorney representing some of the protesters, praised the judge's decision to reject "the NYPD's tired line that policing without brutalizing protesters is too hard."
But McMahon did not make the city liable over claims from protesters that the curfew violated free speech rights, ruling that it did not prevent demonstrations from happening during the day.
James had filed a lawsuit against Mayor Bill de Blasio early this year, claiming the constitutional rights of protesters during the protest movement were violated. She's asking for a federal court-appointed monitor to oversee reforms within the NYPD. At the time of the protests de Blasio defended the actions of the NYPD, despite widespread condemnation over the use of force, which James found to be “illegal and harmful.”
McMahon tweaked some aspects of some of the cases, ruling that de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea can't be sued in their official capacity. Protesters can, however, directly sue the city as the entity.
The judge did rule that Terence Monahan, the now retired Chief of Department, can still be directly sued for his role in allegedly ordering officers to kettle protesters in Mott Haven on June 4th, 2020. The confrontation between protesters and police there became a flash point in the brutal treatment of demonstrators last year.
"The majority of the claims are still in play and we're still gonna pursue discovery on them," Gideon Oliver, an attorney representing clients directly suing Monahan, told Gothamist/WNYC. "One thing that we hope to gain is accountability for what happened last summer, some transparency around what happened last summer and ultimately some justice going forward. And in this case, we hope that that means ongoing restrictions on the police department on what they can and can't do in terms of responding to protests."
In an emailed statement provided to Bloomberg, Patricia Miller, chief of the Special Federal Litigation Division, said they were pleased by the judge's dismissal of some of the plaintiffs' claims.
"In particular the Court recognized that the curfew was constitutional and tailored in such a way to protect peaceful protests while controlling those that escalated to include actions of assault, vandalism, property damage, and looting— posing a serious risk to public safety," Miller wrote. "At this early stage, the merits, if any, of the various force claims have not yet been fully evaluated. The NYPD remains committed to always improving to protect the rights and safety of the public."
Gideon said McMahon has fast-tracked this case to be heard by a jury this year, though he notes he's also working to settle the case before going to trial.
Editor's Note: Gideon Oliver is representing Gothamist/WNYC in a separate legal matter.