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NYC disputes Letitia James suit over NYPD's handling of summer protests

A firework goes off near NYPD cops during

A firework goes off near NYPD cops during a protest last summer. Attorneys for NYC have filed a memorandum objecting to a January lawsuit by State Attorney General Letitia James alleging illegal tactics by city cops during the protests. Credit: Charles Eckert

Lawyers for New York City have asked a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit by State Attorney General Letitia James alleging NYPD cops illegally policed last summer’s protests, saying the case is without merit.

James’ January complaint "was replete with rhetoric but lacking in law," according to a 26-page legal memorandum filed Friday in Manhattan’s U.S. District Court by city attorneys. As part of the lawsuit, James asked the court to appoint a federal monitor to oversee NYPD tactics at future demonstrations, but the memorandum said she lacks the legal authority to make such a request.

Using sometimes pointed language, city lawyers wrote that there was no history of unlawful actions by NYPD cops at protests over the decades, as James' complaint suggested, and the lawsuit attempted "to villainize the entire NYPD into a nameless, faceless feral blue swarm."

The memorandum also made note of City Hall's commitment to numerous changes to the NYPD. Some changes were recommended after last summer's protests and others were included in a "Reform and Reinvention" plan approved last week by the City Council to implement reforms mandated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for police departments statewide, the memorandum stated.

In the lawsuit, James said the NYPD engaged in unlawful policing tactics while responding to protests last summer after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, and during other demonstrations going back decades. The attorney general said in the complaint that she had authority to pursue the case in the interest of public safety, health and welfare of New York citizens.

In a statement released at the time of her filing, James said her team turned up "an egregious abuse of police powers, rampant excessive use of force and leadership unable and unwilling to stop it."

During the protests of summer 2020, NYPD officers struck protesters at least 50 times and used unreasonable force at least 75 times, James said in the statement.

In their memorandum, city attorneys objected, saying there is "no history of unconstitutional policing at protests by the NYPD" and that such claims were "lamentations without support."

There has only been one finding of liability by a jury in the past decade — against an NYPD inspector, according to the memorandum. It came after Occupy Wall Street protests and led to an award of one penny, the city attorneys wrote.

The memorandum also cited other lawsuits against NYPD officers mentioned in James’ complaint, noting that some led to verdicts for the city and summary judgements for protesters, while others were settled with no admission of wrongdoing.

"Anyone can file a lawsuit," the memorandum said. "Just because lawsuits were filed does not mean there is a history of unconstitutional policing at protests."

A statement from James' office Tuesday night defended the lawsuit.

"Our legal action is necessary to repair trust between our communities and the police, keep communities safe from harm, and ensure transparency and accountability within the NYPD moving forward," the statement said.

So far the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board has substantiated 14 cases of alleged police misconduct during the summer demonstrations but is recommending disciplinary charges in only two cases, with others recommending more training for cops.

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