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AG James releases preliminary report on investigation into NYPD interactions with protesters

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Wed, Jul 8th 2020 06:45 pm

Report provides in-depth accounts of interactions; recommendations for systemic reforms at NYPD

AG’s office will issue final report with findings, additional recommendations

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday released a preliminary report into her office’s ongoing investigation into the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) response to recent protests. This preliminary report includes an in-depth account of the interactions that occurred between NYPD and protesters between late May and June. It also includes recommendations for systemic police reforms in light of, what the office called, “the clear breakdown of trust between the police and the public, including removing unilateral power from the NYPD commissioner in favor of a commission.” At the conclusion of the investigation, James will issue a more detailed, final report with recommendations specifically related to NYPD’s conduct in policing the protests.

“While our investigation remains ongoing, after 30 days of intense scrutiny, it is impossible to deny that many New Yorkers have lost faith in law enforcement,” James said. “We must bridge the undeniable divide between the police and the public, and this preliminary report, and the recommendations included, is an important step forward. We must begin the hard work of reevaluating the role of police in society and ensuring that there are mechanisms for public oversight, accountability, and input. Progress is possible, but, first, change and accountability are needed.”

Background

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, thousands of protesters took to the streets across New York City to, the AG’s office said, “protest Floyd’s death, the killing of Breonna Taylor, and to also protest the larger pattern of unarmed, Black people being killed by the police, as well as decades of discriminatory policing.”

After several evenings of violent clashes between NYPD and protesters, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) to conduct a civil investigation into police misconduct during these incidents. Since May 30, OAG has received more than 1,300 complaints and pieces of evidence through a dedicated online portal and phone and email hotlines. James also held a three-day public hearing with testimony from more than 100 protesters, community-based organizations, elected officials, and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea. In addition to the public testimony, OAG received more than 300 submissions of written testimony.

Overview of Arrests

√ During the period of intense protests (May 28 through June 7), there were 2,087 protest-related arrests in New York City.

√ Of those 2,087 arrested, 44% were white, 39% were Black, and 13% were Latino.

√ Of those 2,087 arrested, 16% of Black protesters were charged with a felony, 8% of Latino protesters were charged with a felony, and less than 4% of white and less than 4% of Asian protesters were charged with a felony.

The vast majority of those charged with felonies were arrested on May 31, when there was widespread plundering of businesses. The vast majority of arrests between June 2-6, the days of the 8 p.m. curfew, were made after 8 p.m., suggesting the curfew was a significant driver of arrests.

Recommendations

While OAG’s investigation into NYPD’s response to the protests remains ongoing, the office said, “it is clear that real, meaningful reform cannot wait. This report contains an overview of proposed systemic changes that New York City, New York state, and NYPD should consider implementing to address the concerns of the public and to start building community trust.” These include (per the OAG):

√ Create Public Participation and Oversight of Department Policies and Leadership: It is imperative that the public has input and oversight into police policies and leadership. The NYPD must be overseen by a commission that has the authority to hire and fire NYPD leadership, including the commissioner; has unfettered access to records; and approves NYPD’s budget. The NYPD must also be required to seek public input on any rule it changes or implements that impacts the public. This model takes unilateral power away from the police commissioner and ensures that the police are accountable to the public.

√ Redesign Public Safety and the Role of Police in Society: The role of police in New York City must be examined and redesigned. Police have become the de facto response to many of society’s problems – including mental illness, homelessness and school safety – and that must change. Minor offenses should be decriminalized with the goal of reducing negative contact with the police, particularly in communities of color. This effort should be led by a transparent commission with full-time staff and resources to determine how to remove armed officers from these scenarios and replace them with dedicated professionals with specialized training. This process will take time, but bureaucracy cannot stand in the way of progress. The commission should have no more than 12 months to prepare a roadmap, and the goal should be to transition these areas by 2023.

√ Ensure Real, Independent Oversight, Accountability, and Transparency of Individual Officer Misconduct: The system to hold individual officers accountable must be both independent of NYPD and transparent to the public. To achieve this, the authority of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) must be expanded and strengthened to have final disciplinary authority. Additionally, all police officers in New York should be certified through a process that allows for “decertifying” officers engaged in misconduct, preventing them from remaining a police officer or being rehired by another department in the state. The NYPD should create an open data portal and release body-worn camera footage to ensure that individual officer misconduct is truly transparent.

√ Ensure Real, Independent Oversight, Accountability, and Transparency of Systemic Misconduct: To achieve full oversight of systemic issues within NYPD, the authority of the Office of Inspector General should be expanded, and the office should no longer report to the commissioner of the Department of Investigation. Instead, it should report directly to the New York City mayor and be a fully independent agency.

√ Establish a Codified Use of Force Standard with Real Legal Consequences for Violations: Many of the standards related to officer use of force that are reflected in NYPD’s patrol guide are not codified in law, meaning disciplinary actions for use of force are ultimately determined by the police commissioner. Police officers must be held to uniform standards on use of non-lethal and deadly force and face meaningful consequences for violations. This establishes legal consequences for improper use of force, instead of a violation of the patrol guide, which is subject to internal consequences.

Areas of Concern and Continued Investigation

Since OAG commenced this investigation, the office has received more than 1,300 complaints and “heard many accounts of concerning interactions with NYPD.” The OAG will continue to investigate the following alleged protest-related practices and will recommend appropriate reforms or remedial measures to address any that violate the law and are contrary to policing best practices:

√ Use of Force During the Protests: Most of the complaints OAG received were about allegations of NYPD officers using excessive force against protesters, including the seemingly indiscriminate use of batons and pepper spray, brandishing firearms at protesters, and pushing vehicles or bikes into protesters.

√ Use of “Kettling” Tactic: The OAG received complaints about a tactic NYPD used whereby officers surrounded and blocked protesters, preventing them from leaving an area without making direct contact with police officers. According to witnesses, this practice often led to violent clashes between NYPD and protesters.

√ Treatment of Press, Legal Observers, and Elected Officials: The NYPD has been accused of arresting and using force against credentialed members of the press and engaging in “catch and release” tactics to prevent press from fully reporting on their observations. The OAG will also examine whether NYPD is the appropriate entity to be in charge of issuing press credentials. Similarly, OAG heard testimony about NYPD’s alleged mistreatment of numerous elected officials and purported false arrests of legal observers.

√ Treatment of Essential Workers: The OAG heard from witnesses alleging that, on several occasions, NYPD arrested or mistreated essential workers, particularly during the period of the curfew.

√ Arrest-Related Practices: The OAG received a significant number of complaints about troubling arrest-related practices, including, among others, using extremely tight zip ties to restrict hands, transporting protesters long distances to arrest processing centers, holding protesters for a significant amount of time after arrest, misgendering detainees, and holding protesters in cramped cells under unsafe conditions in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

√ Other Alleged Practices That Impair Community Trust: The OAG heard from witnesses and received evidence related to NYPD officers failing to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) during the protests and covering their identification information found on their badges. The OAG also received numerous complaints regarding several instances of officers allegedly using racist hand gestures directed at protesters.

“With this report, Attorney General James and her team have begun the important work of chronicling the events surrounding the recent protests and ensuring that all voices – protesters, police, and elected officials – are heard,” said former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “As this investigation continues, so must the vital conversations around transparency and accountability. These are the most important conversations of our time.”

“This report reflects very hard work by Attorney General Letitia James and the staff of the Office of the Attorney General – I have been honored to serve as a special adviser, and to render advice where appropriate,” said Barry Friedman, the Jacob D. Fuchsberg Professor of Law at NYU School of Law, and the founder and faculty director of the Policing Project at NYU Law. “The investigation of the events described here is ongoing, so we must await that outcome, but Attorney General James and her team have developed an important chronology of the events regarding the protests in New York, and a set of recommendations that deserve serious discussion and consideration from the public, the police, and elected officials. I hope they get the hearing they deserve.”

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