© Gardiner Anderson/New York Daily News/TNSAn injured woman, identified as Dounya Zayer, is removed in an ambulance near the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York on Friday, May 29, 2020 during a protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd.
NEW YORK - The New York Police Department violated New Yorkers' First Amendment rights by suppressing "overwhelmingly peaceful" protests over the death of George Floyd, New York State Attorney General Letitia James charged Thursday in a lawsuit against the country's largest police force.
The 69-page suit asks a judge to declare the NYPD's practices at protests unlawful and features photos of protester injuries at the hands of police officers. James seeks a court-appointed monitor to manage an overhaul of NYPD practices at protests, which she says have devolved into police abuse for decades. © Jeff Bachner/New York Daily News/TNSDemonstrators are arrested while protesting the death of George Floyd as they taunt NYPD officers, and pelt them with bottles, cans, rocks and fireworks at Bedford Avenue and Church Avenue, Saturday, May 30, 2020.
"From May 28, 2020 to Dec. 11, 2020, NYPD Officers of various ranks . . . repeatedly and without justification used batons, fist strikes, pepper spray, and other physical force against New York residents at the protests. Protesters - many of whom were never charged with any crime and were merely exercising their First Amendment rights - suffered concussions, broken bones, cuts, bruises, and other physical injuries," the suit filed in Manhattan federal court reads. © Jeff Bachner/New York Daily News/TNSProtesters are arrested after defying the curfew and clashing with police at Cadman Plaza and Johnson Street, Wednesday, June 3, 2020.
"The unlawful policing practices Officers engaged in at these protests are not new. Instead, they are the latest manifestation of the NYPD's unconstitutional policing practices. For at least the last two decades, the NYPD has engaged in the same unlawful excessive force and false arrest practices while policing large-scale protests."
But James' suit does not have the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said the additional oversight she seeks would only interfere with ongoing reforms of the NYPD.
"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," de Blasio said in a statement.
The mayor faced scathing criticism for his defense of the NYPD during the summer protests. He reversed himself in December, saying: "I look back with remorse. I wish I had done better."
James faulted de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea for not de-escalating the violence.
"We know they saw it all. We all saw it," James said. "These incidents are as disturbing as they are unnecessary and unlawful."
Protesters who spoke at a news conference announcing the new suit said police beatdowns left them bloody, traumatized and outraged by the NYPD's lack of accountability.
"I think I was assaulted by an irresponsible officer because that officer was sure he or she would get away with it," said Luke Hanna. A cop allegedly clobbered Hanna with a baton on June 3 as he followed an order to disperse downtown Brooklyn. Hanna needed 10 staples on his head.
The suit comes a month after the city's Department of Investigation released a blistering report admonishing the department for lacking a "clearly defined strategy" in its handling of citywide protests over Floyd's death. © Luiz C. Ribeiro/New York Daily News/TNSNYPD Officers arrest members of the Black Lives Matter counter-protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge roadway trying to block members of various religious groups along with members of Police Unions, SBA, PBA and others from marching on the Brooklyn Bridge to support Police Officers on July 15, 2020.
The department's lack of preparation "contributed to problems that then escalated tensions," the 111-page probe said.
Thousands of people took to the streets in outrage over the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis, sparking caught-on-camera clashes between protesters and police. In one notorious incident, a cop shoved a woman near the Barclays Center, giving her a concussion. That officer was charged with assault. James singled out another episode in which a cop pulled down a protester's goggles, pepper sprayed him in the eyes, then bragged about it to his brothers in blue.
Officers in riot gear fought and arrested hundreds of demonstrators and also arrested some looters, many of whom stole from businesses in Manhattan and the Bronx.
The Department of Investigation recommended the NYPD create a protest response unit to coordinate with the Community Affairs Bureau to handle large protests.
NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said he intended to incorporate the recommendations into future department policies and training.
The NYPD already has a court-appointed federal monitor, Peter Zimroth, overseeing efforts to reform its stop and frisk procedures, which a judge ruled disproportionately impacted minorities.