The City of New York recently agreed to pony up millions to Black Lives Matter demonstrators over abusive police crowd-control tactics, concurrent with the NYPD’s absence last Wednesday, March 1, at a City Council hearing about one of the units responsible.
Rob Rickner, one of the protesters’ lawyers, told the Amsterdam News that the class action settlement largely stems from the department’s Strategic Response Group (SRG) “kettling” participants in a George Floyd protest in the South Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven on June 4, 2020.
There are more than 300 plaintiffs. Most of the plaintiffs will receive $21,500 each. Some will receive an extra $2,500. Their lawyers say this is probably the most money ever awarded per person for a mass arrest lawsuit in New York City.
The settlement, agreed upon on Feb. 28, landed just a day before a previously scheduled oversight hearing on the SRG by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee. Subsequent news broke about the payout shortly before the proceedings started. A Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) spokesperson told the Amsterdam News that present members from the police watchdog agency only found out about the settlement minutes before the hearing started.
But nobody from the NYPD showed up, despite an invitation to testify. The department submitted a written statement instead, much to the displeasure of many present. Council Member Tiffany Cabán called the NYPD’s absence “bull” and later alleged in her newsletter that the no-show stemmed directly from the Mott Haven settlement.
“The real reason they didn’t show up?” she said. “As The New York Times revealed, during the hearing, the NYPD had been ordered by a judge to compensate hundreds of protesters it brutalized in the summer of 2020 to the tune of $21,500 each. Of course, it is the people of New York City—already hurting from sky-high rent, ConEd, and food prices—who will have to foot the bill. The department simply didn’t want to face the music.”
Yet the SRG is, ironically, designed for confrontation. Officers are armored with riot gear and equipped with military-grade sound cannons. Originally founded in 2015 for counter-terrorism purposes, the SRG quickly developed a reputation for protest-busting among local activists despite then-Chief of Department James O’Neill’s explicit insistence that the special operations unit would not be deployed to demonstrations. Since inception, the SRG’s ranks have doubled from around 350 to 700 officers and its budget has swelled from $13 million to $90 million.
Sisters Amali and Samira Sierra—two of the five named plaintiffs in the Mott Haven class action lawsuit—told the Amsterdam News that NYPD officers blocked the protesters from entering Manhattan, funneling them back to the Bronx. From there, they said, cops with shields and batons created a wall around them.
Other officers zoomed down the street on bicycles, making it even more difficult to leave. Protesters were encircled, trapped, and squashed together by police in the practice best known as kettling. A bullhorn blared warnings that the demonstration was in violation of an 8 p.m. curfew set by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Emergency Executive Order No. 119.
The Sierra sisters said the officers involved were in the SRG. They also recalled that the officers began encircling them before 8 p.m.
They were soon connected to attorneys by National Lawyers Guild members and decided to spearhead the lawsuit.
“Members of this class action did not take any legal action after they were violated,” said Samira Sierra. “It’s not a coincidence that after they were extremely violated and terrorized on June 4, they did not take legal action. The majority of the people were Black and brown folks; the majority of these people are Bronx natives. And the majority of people live in the community, which is the poorest congressional district in the United States.”
A Department of Investigations (DOI) report corroborated the Sierra sisters’ recollection of the Mott Haven demonstrations, adding that mass arrests were made by the NYPD and enforced by “physical force against protesters, including striking them with batons.” The findings also allege the NYPD detained non-protesters such as legal observers, medical workers, and journalists at the rally, some of whom were zip-tied and shoved onto the street.
So far, direct complaints against only three SRG officers involved in the Mott Haven protests have been substantiated by the CCRB. But this is by design, according to Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. In his testimony, he alleged officers made concentrated efforts to impede the watchdog’s probe by concealing their identities during the protests and delaying body-worn camera footage. He also said he has personally witnessed and experienced abusive practices by NYPD officers at protests, including from members of the unit.
“Deploying the SRG to police protests has demonstrably resulted in unnecessary abuse and violence, and their presence should no longer be allowed at protests,” said Williams in his statement. “It is unsurprising that the SRG frequently uses excessive force, as they are a specialized unit trained to respond to terrorism and violent crime; over time, the NYPD has conflated terrorism and protest, leading to the deployment of officers and militarized gear to largely nonviolent demonstrations.”
An NYPD spokesperson responded with a statement calling the protests “a challenging moment” for the department and said lessons were learned from the handling of demonstrators.
“Two-and-a-half years after the protests of 2020, much of the NYPD’s policies and training for policing large-scale demonstrations have been re-envisioned based on the findings of the department’s own, self-initiated analyses and on the recommendations from three outside agencies (that) carefully investigated that period,” said the police spokesperson.
Advocates from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU)—a long-time critic of the SRG—are not convinced.
“The NYPD has taken no substantial steps to even take accountability and acknowledge the harm that has been done,” said NYCLU Organizer Isabelle Leyva. “We’ve had many conversations with protesters—hundreds of people have met with us to talk, even when we were thinking about what this campaign could be to disband this unit. The overwhelming feedback that we got is that there is no going back with the SRG and there is no moving forward with the SRG.”
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything from the NYPD thus far to say that there is a new approach or real reforms that have been made,” said NYCLU Assistant Policy Director Michael Sisitzky. “If anything, that doubled down on their defense of the SRG and its tactics, rather than acknowledge that there was a fundamental flaw in the very creation and implementation of this unit.”
NYCLU representatives added that the recent class action lawsuit is just one of the first legal dominos to fall. Other cases stemming from the NYPD’s handling of George Floyd demonstrations are still ongoing, including those seeking injunctive relief that would mandate the department drop certain policing practices.
“The biggest benefit to trying to achieve change through litigation is that if you get to the settlement table, you are—for the most part—directly talking to higher-up officials in the NYPD or in the mayor’s office,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Daniel Lambright. “And you are negotiating back and forth as to how those individuals will be making changes. In some sense, you cut through the City Council process where you try to subpoena the SRG to come—and they don’t come. It’s a more directed process.”
But those pending court battles reportedly served as an excuse note for the NYPD’s absence last Wednesday. The NYPD’s claims of a legal gag order stemming from those cases and preventing its participation at the hearing were reportedly disputed and refuted by Hell Gate NYC. Lambright confirmed with the Amsterdam News that no gag order exists for the NYPD in the NYCLU’s current lawsuit. Two previous attempts for a City Council oversight hearing about the SRG were also rebuffed by the department and subsequently delayed. As Wednesday showed, the third time was not the charm.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.