NYPD Responded Aggressively to Protests After Promises to Change

Last September, the New York Police Department signed a sweeping agreement in federal court that was meant to end overwhelming responses to protests that often led to violent clashes, large-scale arrests and expensive civil rights lawsuits.

The sight of hundreds of officers in tactical gear moving in on pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, on Saturday suggested to civil libertarians that the department might not abide by the agreement when it is fully implemented. At least two officers wearing the white shirts of commanders were filmed punching three protesters who were prone in the middle of a crosswalk.

And film clips of recent campus protests showed some officers pushing and dragging students, a handful of whom later said they had been injured by the police, though many officers appeared to show restraint during the arrests.

“I think members of the public are very concerned that the police will be unwilling or unable to meet their end of the bargain,” said Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney with Legal Aid, which, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against the city over the department’s response to protests in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd.

That lawsuit was later combined with a complaint filed by Letitia James, the state attorney general, over what she called widespread abuses during the Black Lives Matter protests. Last fall, police officials and Ms. James reached the agreement in federal court, intended to strike a new equilibrium between the department’s need to preserve public safety and the rights of protesters.

The city, along with two major police unions, agreed to develop policies and training that would teach the department to respond gradually to demonstrations, rather than sending in large numbers of officers immediately, and to emphasize de-escalation over an immediate show of force. The implementation was expected to take three years.

Molly Biklen, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the police reaction to the Bay Ridge protest over the weekend raised “real concerns about the N.Y.P.D.’s ability to shift to a de-escalation approach.”

The “aggressive response,” she said, “reflected the default playbook of force and escalation that we have seen too frequently in the past.”

City officials said the demonstration had been going on for hours before officers moved in. The Police Department’s deputy commissioner for operations, Kaz Daughtry, said in a statement on social media that officers were responding to protesters who were blocking the streets and using “incendiary devices” and “sound reproduction devices without a permit.”

“We will never tolerate any unlawful, illegal, and non-peaceful protests,” the statement said. “This was not a peaceful protest by some.”

Mr. Daughtry also posted a photo depicting bicycle U-locks holding together metal barricades with the words “Pigs Out” scrawled in red ink. He said protesters spit on officers, resisted arrest and threw objects at them.

Kayla Mamelak, a spokeswoman for Mayor Eric Adams, said the city “is committed to honoring the obligations of the settlement.”

“We are actively developing new policies, procedures, and trainings to ensure compliance,” she said. “Our efforts to date follow the exact structure outlined in the settlement, and any suggestion otherwise is simply untrue.”

Ms. Mamelak also referred to comments Mr. Adams made Monday during television interviews, where he defended the police even as other city leaders criticized them.

“We’re going to protect the right to protest, but you don’t have the right to destroy this city,” he said on Fox 5.

On NY1, Mr. Adams said the city is reviewing “the isolated incident that people want to point out” that involved punching.

The demonstrations in Bay Ridge are held in mid-May every year to commemorate what Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe” — when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes during the wars surrounding Israel’s founding in 1948.

Forty-one people were arrested or issued summonses — 36 of them people who lived outside Bay Ridge, according to the police. Two protesters were charged with assault, and 24 demonstrators received summons for disorderly conduct.

The violence captured on social media came nearly three weeks after 282 protesters were arrested at Columbia University and City College. After the campus arrests, police leaders and Mayor Eric Adams said there were no injuries and praised officers for their “professionalism.”

But since then, students who were arrested have come forward to report they had to seek medical care after they were shoved or struck by officers.

Allie Wong, a 38-year-old graduate student at Columbia University, said she was outside Hamilton Hall on April 30, linking arms with other protesters, when the police walked toward them, dressed in tactical gear and wielding batons and shields.

“It didn’t look like we were being approached by people who wanted to have a conversation,” she said.

Ms. Wong, who described herself as 5-foot-6 and 120 pounds, said she was thrown to the ground twice and was hit in the head. She was arrested, issued a summons for trespassing and held for several hours at 1 Police Plaza, the department’s Manhattan headquarters.

When she woke up the next morning, she had a welt the size of a “golf ball” on her forehead, her ribs hurt and she felt shooting pains in her left hand. Ms. Wong, who shared her medical records with The New York Times, said she still has her hand wrapped in a bandage and cannot make a closed fist.

“I can’t type or hold anything,” she said.

Her summons was later dismissed.

Protesters said the response on April 30, when they briefly took over Hamilton Hall on Columbia’s campus, was a stark contrast to the way officers behaved on April 18, when Columbia officials called in the police to clear the lawn of encampments.

Marie Adele Grosso, a 19-year-old student at Barnard College, said she was arrested at both protests.

Ms. Grosso, who has a chronic illness that causes extreme physical fatigue and requires her to use a cane on occasion, said that during the April 18 arrests, the police let her sit down when she complained of dizziness.

On April 30, the officers were much more aggressive, she said. Ms. Grosso, who was outside Hamilton Hall, said she recalled being pushed to the ground. When she got up and was arrested, she said the officer refused to cuff her wrists in front so she could hold her cane, which he took from her.

When Ms. Grosso said she told him she had a disability, she said he replied: “‘If you’re disabled, then don’t get arrested.’”

In response to requests for comments about the injuries, the police said that “ultimately, no injuries were reported to police before, during, or after the trespassers’ removal.”

Until the last two weeks of unrest, protests around the city since the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza have been fairly peaceful.

On Nov. 26, hundreds of protesters from an anti-Zionist Jewish group, Jewish Voice for Peace, shut down the Manhattan Bridge on a Sunday, snarling city traffic for hours. A handful were arrested, according to the group.

In January, there were similar demonstrations, with protesters blocking the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge and Holland Tunnel for more than an hour during a morning commute. Hundreds of people were arrested, but there were no reports of violent confrontations with the police.

On Saturday, the police responded to a scene where “there was already antagonistic feelings from those at the protest,” said Jillian Snider, an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former New York police officer. She said that officers are already trained “to go at it verbally first, but there are times when the person comes back at you with a violent nature.”

Ms. Wong, the lawyer with Legal Aid, said the police could have made more efforts to negotiate with leaders of the protest or diverted traffic.

“Is the response from the police to violently arrest and disrupt and oppress protest the only answer to that problem?” Ms. Wong asked.

Erin Nolan and Hurubie Meko contributed reporting.

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