Jan 14, 2021
New York AG Announces Lawsuit Against NYPD for George Floyd Protest Response: Transcript
New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a lawsuit against the NYPD for their handling of the George Floyd protests. Read the full transcript of her January 14 press conference here.
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Letitia James: (00:00)
… peaceful protest. In our lawsuit, we outlined years of the NYPD’s illegal and harmful conduct against New Yorkers, and most recently it’s a protest that began this past May, which has led to significant injuries and violated individual’s basic rights to peacefully protest. We found that over the course of the protest from May to December of 2020, NYPD officers engaged in blatant use of excessive force and often misconduct, including the indiscriminate, unjustified, and repeated use of batons, pepper spray, bicycles, and a crowd control tactic known as kettling, also referred to as containment, which caused significant physical harm. We also found that NYPD officers unlawfully detained and arrested legal observers, medics, and other essential workers performing services. The arrests were without probable cause and in direct violation of the executive order that was issued by the mayor of the city of New York.
Letitia James: (01:12)
The complaint filed in Southern District of New York, specifically names, as I mentioned, the city of New York Mayor DeBlasio, NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, and NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan. The city of New York and these individuals in their official capacities as the top policy makers for the NYPD failed to address this longstanding pattern of abuse by not properly training, supervising, and disciplining officers to prevent this misconduct, despite knowing and publicly admitting that it violated the rights of New Yorkers. This lawsuit seeks broad injunctive relief, including systemic reforms to the NYPD and a monitor to oversee the NYPD’s compliance with the law and policing practices in future protest. We were also seeking an order from the court declaring that NYPD’s response to protesters were in fact unlawful and in violation of their First, their Fourth and Fourteenth constitutional rights. Unfortunately, the NYPD’s response to large-scale protest is nothing new. During anti-war protests in 2003, protesters made hundreds of complaints about excessive force, resulting in money damages against the city of New York.
Letitia James: (02:42)
In 2004, NYPD employed similar unconstitutional practices at protests of the Republican National Convention, again resulting in money damages against the city of New York. In 2011, NYPD officers use excessive and unnecessary force against protesters during the Occupy Wall Street protest, again with the same result, money damages against the city of New York. And during these years and since, the NYPD and the city have been sued many times, numerous times, for this misconduct and for arrests that lacked probable cause and violate the First Amendment. Since the end of May 2020, my office has received more than 1300 complaints and pieces of evidence about the NYPD’s misconduct. We have also received 300 submissions of written evidence. We heard from over 100 individuals at our public hearing in June and subsequent investigation, and we found a pattern of deeply concerning and unlawful practices that the NYPD utilized in response to these largely peaceful protests. We found that the NYPD arrested or detained hundreds of protestors, legal observers, medics and others without legal justification, and in clear violation of the emergency executive orders from the mayor. Officers arrested individuals who were exempt from the curfew, and detained and arrested individuals without probable cause that they were actively engaged in unlawful conduct. They used grossly excessive force, including unjustifiably deploying pepper spray, batons, their bicycles, and even using their fists against protesters. As a result of these actions, protestors suffered significant physical and psychological harm, including broken arms, bones, and gashes requiring stitches and staples, concussions, and more. In total, we found over 155 incidents of officers using excessive and unreasonable force against protestors. And while these acts were abhorrent and unlawful, sadly, they are not new. For decades, this misconduct has been widely examined and reported. The NYPD has continuously engaged in similar unlawful excessive force and false arrest practices while policing large-scale protest.
Letitia James: (05:35)
And even though the NYPD knew this, they still failed to put policies and procedures in place and to discipline officers to correct these egregious actions. NYPD and city leadership even went as far as to commend the NYPD’s use of kettling, otherwise known as containment, which was its strategy to corral and trap protesters. Despite the mass arrests and injuries to numerous protestors, Commissioner Shea said that the NYPD, quote, “had a plan, which was executed nearly flawlessly,” unquote. While Mayor DeBlasio was on the record saying that the use of kettling was quote, “justified,” unquote, there was ample ability and opportunity for the city and NYPD leadership to make important changes to the way that officers interact with peaceful protestors. But time and time again, they did not. They did not train, they did not supervise, they did not stop officers who engaged in this misconduct, and they did not discipline them either. Instead, they failed the people of the city of New York. New Yorkers have a right to peacefully and freely protest, and the city’s leaders have a responsibility to respect and protect that right. But what we saw was legal rights and protections tossed aside.
Letitia James: (07:09)
We cannot say that leadership turned a blind eye to what was happening on our city streets, because we know they saw it all. We all saw it. We all saw the chilling moment when protester Andrew Smith, his face mask pulled down and was then pepper sprayed directly in the face by an officer, an act that was caught on video and seen by millions. Andrew suffered from the effects of the pepper spray for days after the encounter with NYPD. After the incident, we saw body-worn footage that captured the officer who sprayed Andrew bragging that, I quote, “took the guy’s goggles. I ripped his shit off, and I used it,” unquote. We were also able to see the moments when the NYPD in full gear charged towards protester Mr. Huascar Benoit without provocation, and hit him with batons on the right side of-
Letitia James: (08:03)
Without provocation and hit him with batons on the right side of his face and elsewhere on his body. Then when Mr. Ben [Wile 00:08:11] was visibly bloodied and disoriented after the attack, no NYPD officer sought or provided medical attention to him for the broken eye socket he suffered as a result. And we saw the aftermath of the incident that left protestor, Luke Hanna, with 10 staples in his head after an officer struck him with a Baton without provocation or justification.
Letitia James: (08:39)
These incidents are as disturbing as they are unnecessary and unlawful. The simple fact is, is that they are not warranted and are patently illegal. We also cannot underscore the horrifying truth that individuals providing essential services, such as legal observers and medics and monitors were harassed and arrested without probable cause, even though the mayor specifically exempted them from curfew orders.
Letitia James: (09:12)
On May 30th, Rayne Valentine, a medical worker who has been on the front lines of the COVID 19 crisis was walking home from a shift when he witnessed NYPD officers beating up another person, Mr. Valentine recorded video of the officers with his cell phone, but as he recorded, an officer approached him and yelled at him to move back, Mr. Valentine complied, but without warning, the officer charged at him, pushed him to the ground and multiple officers began attacking him. Mr. Valentine, tried to tell the officers that he was just trying to get home. And one of the officers replied that quote, “You pick the wrong time to do that.” Unquote, Mr. Valentine was beaten by the police before they abruptly stopped and walked away. Mr. Valentine then had to return to the hospital where he works and had just left to seek medical assistance for the gash on his head, which required staples to close.
Letitia James: (10:26)
This unfettered conduct has gone on for too long. And today my office is seeking broad, injunctive relief against the NYPD and the City of New York in the form of ongoing monitoring, trainings and permanent changes to unconstitutional policies and practices as it relates to large-scale protest. We need immediate change to decades old, unjust policies and practices. And to help restore trust and ensure that reforms are fully implemented, it is critical that real changes are made.
Letitia James: (11:05)
I want to be clear. I do not think that every police officer is problematic. I have family members and close friends who have served and continue to serve in the NYPD. I respect them deeply. I know that many officers have the best intentions to protect New Yorkers and bring communities together but we have a problem that is bigger than any one officer. This is an institutional systemic problem that must be addressed with proper training, the proper protocols, and with discipline of those who violate the law. It is my hope that today’s action will push the city in the right direction, so that we may move forward in decency, transparency and with respect for the law. And with that, I’d like to thank every person and organization that bravely came forward over the months to testify, to share their story and to cooperate with our investigation. Your participation was integral to today’s announcement and your participation in speaking up and peacefully marching for what you believe in, is critical and integral to our democracy. I would also like to encourage anyone with relevant information or experiences to still file a complaint with my office by visiting ag.ny.gov/nypd-protest-response. that’s ag.ny.gov/nypd-protest- response.
Letitia James: (13:03)
I’d also like to thank two special individuals who have graciously volunteered their time, attention, and expertise to serve as special advisors to my investigation. Former United States Attorney General, Loretta Lynch and Barry Friedman, the Jacob D. Fuchsberg Professor of Law and the Founder and Faculty Director of the Policing Project at NYU School of Law. I’d also like to thank Farhang Heydari, the Executive Director of the Policing Project for his support.
Letitia James: (13:39)
Now I’d like to introduce three individuals who have bravely with bravely shared their personal experiences with us. First, I’d like to introduce Andrew Smith.
Andrew Smith: (13:51)
Attorney James, good morning all. On May 30th, 2020, I went out with my brother, like so many others to let our voices be heard and our black bodies seen. George Floyd was killed under the knee of a police officer and I had every intention to exercise my right, to speak out against the continued deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement. I’ve trained all my life about how to survive interactions with police. I grew up experiencing Abdou Diallo, Sean Bell, Central Park Five, and Eric Garner.
Andrew Smith: (14:22)
NYPD statements advise us to follow the law, follow orders, do not be a threat and everything will go fine. After my assault at the hands of NYPD Officer Michael Sher, it is clear to me that the foundation of the police force and our legal system was not intended to recognize and protect the rights of black people.
Andrew Smith: (14:40)
On May 30th, Michael Sher, a white police officer again showed the world the inadequate training, the violent racist culture of the NYPD, when he attacked me while my hands were high up in the air. I was no threat. I was not being aggressive or hostile, but somehow I was still assaulted by the police. The officer who was supposed to be a part of the police force sworn to protect and serve bypassed several white protestors standing to my right only to shove me in my chest, snatch off my COVID mask and pepper sprayed me in the face. Then brag to his buddies about how he assaulted me.
Andrew Smith: (15:18)
I strongly believe that Officer Sher should be prosecuted and removed because he represents members of the police force who hide in uniform, terrorizing those they are sworn to protect. That is why I have continued to push for Officer’s Sher to be prosecuted. I have cooperated with Civilian Complaint Review Board in their investigation into my assault. I have begun the process of seeking justice civilly, also I have cooperated with Attorney General James’ efforts to investigate the police response to the protest.
Andrew Smith: (15:48)
I’m grateful to Attorney General James for filing this historic lawsuit and including my assault among the cases that are serving as a basis for their request for justice. I appreciate her commitment to upholding the law. I’m vexed by the excessive …
Andrew Smith: (16:03)
… Commitment to upholding the law. I’m vexed by the excessive force and racial discrimination by officer [inaudible 00:00:06]. But I’m glad the world got to see New York’s finest in action. His failures as a civil servant have impacted my work, mental health, personal relationships, family of plans, along with my safety. However, we, the people will not be silenced. This historic lawsuit against the NYPD by the attorney general is an indictment to the largest police force in America for its culture of taking opportunities to target those they are sworn to protect. Thank you.
Letitia James: (16:38)
Thank you, Andrew. Next, I’d like to introduce Luke Hanna. Mr. Hanna.
Luke Hanna: (16:48)
Hello. Thank you, Attorney General James. On June 3rd at Cabinet Plaza in downtown Brooklyn, I was peacefully protesting the murder of George Floyd with hundreds of others peacefully protesting. After being thrown to the ground several times and witnessing violent acts against numerous protestors, I fled the area in compliance with the NYPD’s instructions. While walking in the pouring rain, I could hardly see out of my glasses, away from Cabinet Plaza, surrounded by dozens of officers. I was alone. I was struck from behind with a baton, and I touched my head and my hands were covered in blood.
Luke Hanna: (17:43)
More than just the pain, immediate physical pain of being beaten on the head, was the lasting pain and anger of having my constitutional rights violated. I’m a U.S. citizen. I’m a New Yorker. I live in downtown Brooklyn and I walk through the area on a regular basis. I just couldn’t believe it. I’m one skinny guy, at that time surrounded by dozens of strong officers and body armor. There’s no way I’d pose any threats. I think I was assaulted by an irresponsible officer because that officer was sure that he or she would get away with it. My hope from this is that the individual officers that acted out of line on June 3rd and throughout the protests are held accountable. And then beyond that, a fundamental change in the way that the NYPD recruits and trains its officers. I hope to someday live in a city where I’m actually proud of the police and think that they will protect me and not assault me. So, thank you.
Letitia James: (18:54)
Thank you, Mr. Hanna. And now we will hear from Rayne Valentine. Mr. Valentine.
Rayne Valentine: (19:00)
Thank you. Good morning. My name is Rayne Valentine. I’m here today to share my experience with the NYPD this summer. I’m pursuing my own case, represented by both Gideon Oliver and Elena Cohen. On the night of May 30th, I was walking to the subway after finishing my shift at the hospital I work at in Brooklyn. When I saw multiple NYPD officers throw a man to the ground and start beating him. There around six officers attacking those one person, so I began to record it with my phone. While I was filming, an officer walked up to me while swinging his baton and yell, “Get back. Get back.” I immediately started walking backwards in compliance and responded that I was moving back. The next thing I knew that same officer charged at me. He pushed me to the ground, began attacking me for no apparent reason.
Rayne Valentine: (19:44)
Additional officers then joined him and continued to beat me. I told the officers I was simply trying to get home. To which, one of the officers threateningly replied, “You picked the wrong time to do that.” I was terrified. When the beating finally stopped, they left me on the ground with blood streaming down my face. I was in great pain. I knew I needed medical attention. So I went back to the hospital where I work, and had to get seven staples to close the gash in my head. I’ve worked tirelessly at a hospital to protect New Yorkers from COVID-19, risking my life and my safety to help people I don’t even know. Yet, when I walk out onto the street, simply trying to get home after a long, hard day, I was viciously attacked and beaten by the very people who are supposed to protect me and our communities.
Rayne Valentine: (20:33)
The scariest part is that I know I’m not the only one. Members of the NYPD attacked and injured so many people this summer and without any meaningful consequences. It is your right, and these officers must be held individually accountable. And it’s time that the entire police force go through some radical change to make sure that no one else is a victim to this kind of police brutality. I want to thank Attorney General James for taking the action today, which I hope can advance these goals. Thank you.
Letitia James: (21:02)
Thank you, Mr. Valentine. Allow me to acknowledge the hardworking team who worked on this case. First Bureau Chief Jessica Clark of the Civil Rights Bureau. As well as Assistant Attorney general Lillian Marquez of the Civil Rights Bureau. Special Counsel Moe [inaudible 00:21:19] of the Executive Division. Assistant Attorney General Travis England of the Civil Rights Bureau. Chief Investigator Oliver Pu-Folkes. Assistant Attorney General, Greg Morril, of the Public Integrity Bureau. Assistant Solicitor General, Phillip Levitz of the Division for Appeals and Opinion. Deputy Solicitor General Anisha Dasgupta, of the Division for Appeals and Opinions. Chief Deputy Attorney General, Megan Fox. And that’s Jessica Clark. Chief Deputy Attorney General, Jose Maldonado. Solicitor General, Barbara Underwood. And all under the supervision of the First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy. At this point in time, we will take some questions. Please open up the microphones.
Thank you, Attorney General James. We’ll open the call to on-topic questions from the press. We will not be taking off-topic questions today. To ask a question, you can click the raise hand button to be added to the queue. Again, that’s the raise hand button to ask the question. Only Attorney General James will be taking questions today. None of the other speakers at today’s press conference will be answering questions at this time. We’ll give it a few seconds for the queue to populate. Okay. Our first question is from Marcia Kramer from CBS.
Letitia James: (22:42)
Marcia Kramer: (22:48)
I’m sorry. Can you hear me now?
Letitia James: (22:49)
I can hear you, Marcia. How are you?
Marcia Kramer: (22:52)
How are you?
Letitia James: (22:52)
Marcia Kramer: (22:53)
I have two questions. The first is what you would say to Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea about the performance of the NYPD during the protest? And my second question is what do you want the federal monitor to do?
Letitia James: (23:11)
First, I had an opportunity to meet with the mayor of the city of New York. I advised the mayor of the city of New York, as well as corporate counsel, that we were seeking to end NYPD’s longstanding pattern of using excessive force and making false arrests. And that they needed to reform their practices as it relates to large-scale protest. And that this lawsuit seeks a wide range of relief. In addition to a monitor. Let me also correct you. It is not a federal monitor. It is a monitor that will be appointed by the courts to focus on NYPD’s response to large-scale protest, as I mentioned.
Our next question is from Luis Diaz from New York Magazine.
Luis Diaz: (24:02)
Hello, Ms. James. Can you hear me?
Letitia James: (24:03)
Speaker 1: (24:03)
… New York Magazine.
Mr. Diaz: (24:03)
Hello, Ms. James, can you hear me?
Letitia James: (24:04)
I can hear you, Mr. Diaz.
Mr. Diaz: (24:05)
Hi. On December 22nd, the mayor stated the following: “We don’t accept and allow kettling or encirclement. You will not see it in the future, and if any police commander utilizes those tactics in the future, they will experience discipline and consequences.” Ms. James, do you take the mayor at his word?
Letitia James: (24:25)
The issue today is this litigation that we are filing against the city of New York, the mayor of the city of New York, as well as the leadership of NYPD. As I indicated in my remarks, the use of kettling is unconstitutional, also known as containment, and that the use of excessive force by members of the NYPD is also unconstitutional. It’s clearly that we must have policies and procedures in place and that officers are trained and are disciplined in response to large-scale protests.
Letitia James: (24:55)
Over the years, as we outlined in our complaint dating back to the protest, the anti-war protests, to the Republican convention, as well as to the Occupy Wall Street, and most recently the events of this past summer, indicate that NYPD has not implemented any reforms as it relates to large scale protest. That is the purpose of this complaint. Let me also go on to add that I do know that DOI as well as Corp Counsel has issued reports, but we believe that it is necessary that a monitor be in place and that this be subject to a court order.
Speaker 1: (25:37)
Our next question is from Ryan Tarinelli from the New York Law Journal.
Ryan Tarinelli: (25:44)
Hello, Attorney General. Can you hear me?
Letitia James: (25:46)
Yes, I can.
Ryan Tarinelli: (25:47)
Great, thank you so much. Obviously, there have been some officers who have been charged for their conduct in the George Floyd related protest this summer. If my understanding is correct, though, your office has not filed criminal charges against any NYPD officer for their role in the protests. Can you explain why your office hasn’t filed any criminal charges? Thank you.
Letitia James: (26:08)
This is a civil investigation and a civil complaint, and again, our complaint is larger and broader than any one individual officer. It is, again, relates to systemic and broad relief that we are seeking on behalf of the residents of the city of New York.
Speaker 1: (26:32)
Our next question is from Shayna Jacobs at The Washington Post.
Shayna Jacobs: (26:39)
Hi, Attorney General. Good morning.
Letitia James: (26:41)
Good morning, Ms. Jacobs.
Shayna Jacobs: (26:43)
Thank you. When the NYPD does need to control a crowd due to violent acts or destructive acts from individuals who are within that crowd, what should they be doing in place of kettling or containment as it’s called?
Letitia James: (27:03)
Again, the complaint that we have filed relates to the use of excessive force. The complaint outlines over and speaks to the fact that 30 incidents involve the use of pepper spray, 50 incidents in which officers use baton, 75 incidents in which protestors were punched or shoved. These types of actions and more, as well as the false arrests by individuals who were not subject to the curfew order that was issued by the mayor of the city of New York, really call for systemic changes, including, but not limited to, training and proper discipline. It’s really critically important, again, that those be implemented by the leadership of NYPD. (silence>
Speaker 1: (27:51)
The next question and final question is from Dean Meminger from New York One.
Dean Meminger: (28:18)
Can you hear me, Attorney General James?
Speaker 1: (28:21)
Yes, Mr. Meminger. How are you, Dean?
Dean Meminger: (28:23)
Hi. Can you tell me… You have fought this kind of battle for a long time long before you became the AG. What goes through your heart and mind when you hear the stories of the men that you had on today, one saying he was beaten bloody and had to go to the hospital where he worked with COVID patients to get staples? Another man, the cop allegedly bragging that he ripped his shit off and sprayed him in the face. What goes through your mind as a Brooklyn resident and a New Yorker to hear that this goes on.
Letitia James: (28:57)
Dean, if you watched the three-day hearing that we held, there were over 100 witnesses, and then we heard the testimony of the police commissioner, which is in stark contrast to all of the witnesses that we heard. We heard about their injuries. We heard about the assaults. We heard about the violation of law. We heard from medics. We heard from essential workers. We heard from individuals who were engaging in peaceful protest.
Letitia James: (29:22)
It is my responsibility and my duty to uphold the First Amendment and the right for individuals to exercise their right to protest, and that’s what this complaint is all about. It is about the rule of law and ensuring that individuals, no matter how powerful they may think, that no one is above the law. I thank all of you for attending, and that concludes the press conference. Thank you so much. Copies are available to press as well.