Steve January 14, 2021

New York Attorney General Letitia James has sued the city of New York, as well as its mayor and police commissioner to install a monitor to oversee the police department, alleging civil rights abuses, including by officers at protests over the death of George Floyd.

The “landmark lawsuit” filed in the Southern District of New York names Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea and Chief of Department Terence Monahan as defendants and outlines years of excessive force and false arrests, most recently during racial justice protests last year stemming from the death of Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, James said.

“As the demonstrations continued, the very thing being protested — aggressive actions of law enforcement — was on public display,” James said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.

James was tasked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo with investigating the police department’s handling of protests sparked by Floyd’s death. James said Thursday that her office’s civil investigation found “an egregious abuse of police power, rampant excessive use of force and leadership unable and unwilling to stop it.”

Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that from May 28, 2020 to Dec. 11, 2020, officers of various ranks “repeatedly and without justification used batons, fist strikes, pepper spray, and other physical force” against protesters.

James said officers also used bicycles and a crowd-control tactic known as “kettling,” or “containment,” both of which caused significant harm.

James said legal observers, medics and other essential workers were among those detained and arrested without probable cause. Those arrests, she said, “we’re in direct violation of the executive order that was issued” by de Blasio.

De Blasio said in a statement Thursday that he met with James on Wednesday and “we have a common goal: Continue to drive major police reforms.”

“I couldn’t agree more that there are pressing reforms that must — and will — be made this year, including the major discipline reforms announced with my Obama Foundation pledge, all 30 of the recommendations from the DOI and Law Department reports, and more,” the statement said. “That work is critical and is happening right now.”

“A court process and the added bureaucracy of a federal monitor will not speed up this work,” the statement said. “There is no time to waste and we will continue to press forward.”

The police department did not immediately return a request for comment.

“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 lawsuit states.

Multiple people spoke virtually during the news conference, recounting abuse they said they experienced at the hands of officers.

“The NYPD and its senior leaders failed to address this longstanding pattern of abuse by not properly training, supervising, and disciplining officers to prevent misconduct, despite knowing and publicly admitting that it violated the rights of New Yorkers,” James said.

“No one is above the law — not even the individuals charged with enforcing it,” James said Thursday.

It is past time, she said, for meaningful change.

“That’s why we are seeking systemic reforms to the NYPD and the installation of a monitor to oversee the NYPD’s policing tactics in future protests and to ensure they are complying with the law,” James said. “With today’s lawsuit, this longstanding pattern of brutal and illegal force ends.”

James said that she does not think that every officer is problematic, but that the city has a “systemic problem,” that needs to be addressed.

Image: Janelle GriffithJanelle Griffith

Janelle Griffith is a national reporter for NBC News. 

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