How New York City settles lawsuits with protesters who sue cops over aggressive tactics

The NYPD faces off with protesters during the "We Choose Freedom" march on November 5th.
The NYPD faces off with protesters during the "We Choose Freedom" march on November 5th.
Andrew H. Walker/Shutterstock
The NYPD faces off with protesters during the "We Choose Freedom" march on November 5th.

How New York City settles lawsuits with protesters who sue cops over aggressive tactics

The city has a history of settling lawsuits filed by protesters alleging unjust treatment at the hands of the NYPD, but for some a settlement isn’t enough.
November 6, 2020

Several nights this week, protesters took to Manhattan streets in post-election demonstrations, as votes continued to be counted for President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. By and large, the protests focused on calls to count every vote cast in the election, but some also turned into Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

There were reports of demonstrators starting trash can fires while the NYPD made 56 arrests on Wednesday alone, including a woman accused of punching an officer in the face. The department later tweeted photos of makeshift fireworks, knives and a taser recovered that night. 

Protesters complained cops also used a crowd-control tactic known as “kettling,” in which police encircle or trap protesters in one confined space – essentially using their bodies as fences – to corral crowds in one place so they can then go in and make arrests. Imagine an elite force of sheep herders decked out in riot gear corralling large groups of people into confined spaces, restricting their movement.

The practice and several other police tactics used against protesters this summer were called into question in a recent lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD’s top brass, alleging that police response to Black Lives Matter protests this summer was unlawful. “We’re also seeking declaration that the NYPD policing was unconstitutional and violated their rights, and infringed upon their First Amendment right to freedom of expression and to protest,” said Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney with the Cop Accountability Project at The Legal Aid Society who filed the suit on behalf of 11 plaintiffs.

A spokesperson for the NYPD did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit but directed City & State towards comments made at a press conference on Thursday, at which NYPD officials said that while Wednesday’s protest was largely peaceful, a small number of people attempted to “hijack” the demonstrations. A spokesperson for de Blasio did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

While the lawsuit plays out in the courts, there is precedent for New York City settling lawsuits over the police’s alleged mistreatment of protesters. When the Republican National Convention was held in New York City in 2004 – which marked George W. Bush’s nomination for a second term as president – floods of protesters rallied outside the event, and nearly two thousand were arrested, many of them peaceful protesters and bystanders. A lawsuit was filed on behalf of hundreds of them, arguing their constitutional rights had been violated. Eventually, roughly 10 years later, New York City settled the suit for $18 million, in what the NYCLU said at the time was the largest protest settlement in history. 

The Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 also led to several other city settlements with protesters who said they’d been unjustly treated by police. In one case, New York City agreed to pay over $300,000 to six Occupy protesters who said police had unjustly used pepper spray against them. In another, the city agreed to pay almost $600,000 after plaintiffs accused police of making false arrests of protesters walking on a sidewalk on New Year’s Day in 2012. In each of those instances, it was a few years before the city settled with plaintiffs.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that the use of tactics like kettling this summer recalled earlier protests. “The kettling is reminiscent of a more violent form of the big orange nets from the Republican National Convention,” she said, referring to nets that were used to effectively fence in protesters during those demonstrations. “It’s much more violent, as police use bicycles and billy clubs to brutalize protesters, and how they wantonly attack and arrest people regardless of what they themselves are doing – whether they’re engaged in unlawful or lawful activity, and violence or not violence.” 

Despite settling protest lawsuits in the past, Lieberman suggested the city hasn’t learned from those experiences. “It feels like the police department is out of control,” she said. “That’s not to say that it’s not challenging. It is challenging to respond appropriately sometimes, but the city has really failed to learn from the lessons of past eras and the recent past experiences.”

While big settlements from lawsuits like these can bring plaintiffs closure, damages and relief, in other instances, some individuals who have filed lawsuits against the NYPD say they would rather go to trial than settle. Hawk Newsome, cofounder of Black Lives Matter Greater New York, said that he has two lawsuits pending against the NYPD, and plans to file another for false arrest from this past Sunday, when he was arrested with a handful of others who planned to take part in a counter-protest to a rally for Trump. “I know a lot of people settle lawsuits, but I want to take these to trial so we can put these cops on the stand and really get the truth out of them,” Newsome said. “And because I guess I have a profile, hopefully people will watch the trial and see just exactly how our people are treated out here in the streets.”

When it comes to lawsuits against the NYPD in general, New York City – along with other localities across the country – has spent millions to settle lawsuits over claims including false arrest and excessive force. The city spent roughly $200 million a year on average in payouts for recent claims against the NYPD. “A settlement will never be enough to force the police to change their behavior, but it’s a way for the city to clean their conscience,” Newsome said.

Lieberman and Wong said they hoped the latest lawsuit leads to long-overdue reform at the NYPD. “We hope this lawsuit will uplift the stories of all the people who have put themselves out there to participate in these demonstrations, to lift up the stories and the narratives of everyone that they’re standing up for – all of the victims, and the families of victims, of police violence and police brutality,” Wong said. “But we know that it’s much larger than just this lawsuit.”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.