New York City has agreed to pay several million dollars to settle a lawsuit brought by protesters who say they were assaulted, abused and trapped by police using a technique known as “kettling” at a demonstration in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
In court papers late Tuesday, the city said it will pay $21,500 to each of at least 200 protesters who were detained, arrested or met with force by NYPD during a June 4, 2020, protest in the Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood.
The city said it will also pay $21,500 per plaintiff for legal costs and an extra $2,500 to protesters who were given court appearance tickets, meaning the bill from the class-action lawsuit could be close to $10 million or more.
A judge must still approve the settlement — which if approved, is expected to cost city taxpayers between $4-6 million. At City Council, some argued that should come directly from the NYPD budget rather than the city’s general fund for legal claims. Plaintiffs' lawyers said they believe it would be the city's highest per-person settlement in a mass arrest class-action lawsuit and heralded it as a "historic agreement."
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It’s one of several lawsuits alleging NYPD officers mistreated protesters who took to the streets nightly after the police killing of Floyd in Minnesota on May 25, 2020. More than 100 NYPD officers were cited for misconduct over the span of the days-long demonstrations. Similar protests happened in cities and towns across the U.S.
In the Mott Haven protest, the NYPD was criticized for kettling protesters, essentially trapping them and giving them no choice but to break a curfew that the city had implemented to quell unrest.
“The violence unleashed upon us that night was intentional, unwarranted, and will be with me for the rest of my life," plaintiff Henry Wood said in a statement released through lawyers. “What the NYPD did, aided by the political powers of New York City, was an extreme abuse of power.”
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One of the plaintiffs' lawyers, Joshua Moskovitz, said the NYPD's actions in Mott Haven were reminiscent of “ Bloody Sunday,” in which civil rights protesters were beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965.
"We hope this settlement marks an inflection point for policing in New York City,” Moskovitz said.
In court documents, attorneys for the Bronx protestors argued the June 4th arrests was particularly egregious because the operation was "directed by the very highest levels of the NYPD including [former] Chief of Department Terrence Monahan." (Monahan now works as a law enforcement contributor for NBC New York).
In a statement, the NYPD said the protests in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic were a “challenging moment” for officers and the department, and that it has since reformed how it responds to protests.
“Much of the NYPD’s policies and training for policing large-scale demonstrations have been re-envisioned based on the findings of the department’s own, self-initiated analyses and on the recommendations from three outside agencies who carefully investigated that period,” the department said. “The NYPD remains committed to continually improving its practices in every way possible.”
A spokesperson said that officers "did their utmost to help facilitate people’s rights to peaceful expression all while addressing acts of lawlessness including wide-scale rioting, mass chaos, violence, and destruction."
The civil rights organization Human Rights Watch released a report in October 2020 citing evidence that police planned an aggressive crackdown on the Mott Haven protesters.
Police used bicycles to form a wall around protesters while officers, including some in riot gear, attacked demonstrators — beating them with batons, kicking and punching them, and spraying them with pepper spray, the report said.
At least 61 people were hurt, with injuries including a broken nose, lost tooth, sprained shoulder, broken finger, split lip, black eyes and bruises.
Much of the police misconduct there was blamed on the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, a unit tasked with crowd control. On Wednesday, City Hall was filled with protesters calling for the SRG to be disbanded.
"How barbaric it was, that day. How I was violated," said Samira Sierra, one of the protesters who was arrested in June 2020.
Back in 2020, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly apologized for the mass arrest, saying "I wish I had done better." The city’s Department of Investigation called the NYPD’S use of force in the demonstration “disproportionate to the identified threat."
At a City Council hearing on Wednesday, protesters who took part in the Mott Haven demonstration were unconvinced by the NYPD’s efforts to reform. They noted that NYPD brass was invited but did not show up, and the Strategic Response Group is still operational.
Members of the public testified during the oversight hearing before council members, many of whom are critical of the unit and of the department for declining to testify in person — especially as budget season approaches.
The NYPD did not appear in person, but did submit a written testimony that said the SRG is "comprised of highly trained, well-vetted and professional police officers...called upon in some of the most stressful, dangerous and chaotic situations."
In a statement later Wednesday evening after the hearings, the NYPD said the department "remains committed to publicly discussing the events of that challenging period, including the practices of the department’s Strategic Response Group. Unfortunately, doing so at today’s City Council hearing was not possible, as was made clear to the council over the last two months."
The department said that it is involved in active litigation and negotiations that "touch directly" on the SRG, and that courts have issued a gag order requiring confidentiality.
"That means the NYPD’s expert witnesses – those whose voices would be most valuable in the ongoing public dialogue – remain barred from speaking," police said in a statement. "While the NYPD submitted written testimony, we look forward to the opportunity to discuss this matter further at the conclusion of litigation."