New York City taxpayers will pay out nearly $50,000 to a dozen legal observers two years after they were detained during a notorious police crackdown on a protest in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx.
The observers – members of a volunteer program that has long monitored local protests – were detained during a June 2020 protest over the murder of George Floyd. They will each receive payments from the city between about $2,500 and $10,000 in the judgment, which was announced by their attorneys on Thursday morning. The city will also cover the cost of attorneys’ fees.
The mass arrest and assault of protesters in Mott Haven stood out as one of the most aggressive police actions of that summer, prompting widespread outrage and allegations of international human rights violations by the nonprofit Human Rights Watch. As protesters marched through the Bronx neighborhood, officers trapped the group on both sides without warning and charged at them with batons and pepper spray, leaving dozens injured.
Among the 250 people detained were at least a dozen legal observers, who were placed in zip ties and removed from the scene. In written statements following the protest, the legal observers alleged that cops deliberately separated them from the protesters, destroyed their notes, and, in some cases, physically attacked them.
“One officer punched me in the face, and then I was slammed to the concrete by several officers,” Jalen Matney, a 28-year-old CUNY law student who volunteered as a legal observer, wrote in a statement to police investigators. “Another officer stomped on each one of my calves as I laid on the sidewalk motionless while being cuffed.”
Following the arrests, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, one of the original defendants in the case, said that the NYPD was wrong to detain legal observers, who his office repeatedly said should be exempt from the 8 p.m. curfew. But police officials have maintained they did nothing wrong in detaining the legal observers – and the settlement does not include an admission of guilt.
“Legal observers did not enjoy an exemption [of the curfew] as essential workers,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Ernest Hart wrote in a response to the Human Rights Watch report. “Plainly, there cannot be a legal observer of a protest that is itself illegal.”
Gideon Orion Oliver, one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in the case, said the NYPD had effectively “closed ranks,” sticking to the official police line that the response to the protest was executed “flawlessly.” The settlement, Oliver added, would do little to dissuade police against future misconduct.
“Even hundreds of thousands of dollars is a drop in the bucket of the police department's ever increasing budget,” Oliver said. “So forcing New Yorkers to pay those penalties without public transparency or accountability is not really justice at all.”
Oliver represents Gothamist in a separate legal matter.
The NYPD officers involved in the detentions have also evaded official penalties from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent watchdog that can recommend discipline. While the body previously substantiated charges against Sgt. Kenneth Rice of the NYPD Legal Bureau – who was caught on tape saying that “legal observers can be arrested” – that finding was later rescinded after pushback from a top NYPD official.
David Holton, one of the detained legal observers, said the settlement felt hollow without an official admission of wrongdoing by the NYPD.
“More needs to be done to prevent the repression of protests by police, until then me and other legal observers will continue to watch for police misconduct during protests,” he said.
Inquiries to the Mayor’s Office and the NYPD were not returned.