Civil Liberties

The New York Police Department Declares Open Season on the First Amendment

A new report highlights the full extent of the NYPD's efforts to suppress political speech during the Occupy Wall Street protests.

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Last fall, during the Occupy Wall Street movement's putative heydey, media attention tended to focus on a select few instances of especially gratuitous police violence. NYPD Deputy Inspector Johnny Cardona made news when he sucker-punched a guy in the face; Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna was captured on video dousing young women at random with pepper-spray—an act from which he appeared to derive some kind of sadistic enjoyment.  

While those moments garnered most of the scrutiny, a new report filed last week by human rights lawyers affiliated with the NYU School of Law and Fordham Law School says they were just two among many. The attorneys collected testimony about NYPD misconduct from hundreds of eyewitnesses. Their report, filed with local New York authorities, the Department of Justice, and the United Nations, asserts that the NYPD committed widespread human rights abuses, and are therefore in violation of international law. 

"The U.S. response to the Occupy movement—which itself emerged as part of a wave of global social justice protests—is being closely watched by other governments," noted Professor Katherine Glenn, a principal author. These manifold, meticulously-documented abuses, she maintains, undermine the oft-invoked axiom that America is unique among the world for its unwavering commitment to human rights. That mostly nonviolent exhibitions of political speech induced law enforcement to react with such brash disregard for basic liberties, Glenn says, should expose "the double standard inherent in frequent U.S. government critiques of other governments for repressing their peoples' protest rights."

The exhaustive report (which I was also interviewed for, having covered the protests for Reason and other outlets) is titled, "Suppressing Protest." It details a full 130 cases of excessive force which the authors say "warrant investigation by authorities." Additionally, the report alleges that since September 2011, city officials have brought about "massive and continuous overpolicing and poor communication, obstruction of press freedoms and independent legal monitoring, constant police surveillance, unjustified restrictions on the ability of individuals to peacefully assemble in public spaces, arbitrary rule enforcement, and transparency failures." The report also confirms that "there has also been near-complete impunity for alleged abuses."

A broad spectrum of physical attacks by officers is cited, ranging from "hard kicks to the face, overhead baton swings, [and] intentionally applying very hard force to the broken clavicle of a handcuffed and compliant individual," to comparatively minor harassment, like petty shoving. Less severe altercations are still documented, the authors reason, "because of the predictable chilling effect that unnecessary police force has on the enjoyment of assembly and expression rights."

Here are a few such incidents: One journalist reported that an officer shoved a legal observer, also a retired judge, against a wall after she demanded that the officer stop beating a protester. The legal observer described the incident in an interview: "The officer said, 'Lady, do you want to get arrested?' And I said, 'Do you see my hat? I'm here as a legal observer.' He said, 'Do you want to get arrested?' And he pushed me up against the wall.'"

A member of the Research Team observed an officer push and then throw a male protester into the air for no apparent reason as he walked, with many other protesters, near parked police scooters. The protester fell hard to the ground, but was not arrested.

While the recorded acts of police violence numbered over a hundred, the NYPD's obstruction of protesters' First Amendment rights wasn't always violent. The police ordered arbitrary sidewalk closures, aggressively enforced laws governing vehicular traffic flow, made indiscriminate arrests of journalists and legal observers, and were generally obstinate. Additionally, police officers who broke the law were let off with warnings, or less. Anthony Bologna's attacks may have made international headlines, but the villainous pepper-sprayer ultimately just lost a few vacation days. He was then transferred to a post in Staten Island, where the Bologna family happened to already reside. Johnny Cardona was never disciplined.

The report authors found that many interview subjects "reported common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder" and were referred to local counseling services; one unnamed New York Times journalist told interviewers that "an officer threatened to withdraw his press credentials when he asked another officer to stop pushing him."

With Mayor Mike Bloomberg reflexively dismissive of all criticism leveled at the NYPD, it's not clear how reform could be achieved in the short-term. (Consider that Bloomberg still holds the logic of nearly 700,000 stop-and-frisks per year to be unimpeachable). And while a smattering of New York politicians have recently called for federal oversight, the Obama Administration is unlikely to view a protracted dispute with the NYPD as an especially welcome election-year development.

Even if you take a negative view of the Occupy political program, and even if you're unpersuaded by the authors' appeal to international law, the report should give pause to anyone who cares about safeguarding free speech in the U.S.'s preeminent metropolis. It not only charges the NYPD with "undermin[ing] basic assembly and expression freedoms," it also alleges that the agency has "presented a threat to the safety of New Yorkers."

The NYPD's behavior during the Occupy protests "seems designed to make exercising the right to protest in New York City as unpleasant and frightening as possible and is, moreover, a tremendous waste of scarce public resources," wrote Taylor Pendergrass, Senior Staff Attorney at New York Civil Liberties Union.

That's arguably more cause for concern than the occupation of a city park.

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  1. So you have cops on one side, “social justice” lawyers who prepare complaints for the UN on the other. A perfect storm of bullshit.

    1. A perfect storm of bullshit is a thing of awesome beauty.

  2. Widespread human rights abuses are, of course, totally cool under domestic law.

    1. If only the United States had something like the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, except it applied to domestic governments and was legally enforceable.

      1. And what if it excluded positive rights and had a provision that the people retained all their rights not just those that were listed in the document?

        Man that would be awesome! One can only dream.

      2. ummm yeah cuz i want the UN deciding what is a human right and having the ability to enforce it.

        You do realize that if given that power it would still not do shit about violence against peaceful protesters and instead would be cracking people’s heads for emitting CO2.

        1. So have you gotten so used to that whooshing sound that you don’t even hear it anymore?

          1. I don’t miss sarcasm that much do i?

            1. No more than Bloomberg misunderstands the Constitution.

      3. Oh come on, the founder’s had no comprehension of what today’s society would look like. We have automatic rifles that kill hundreds of children, poisons in the air and water, corporations that would leave us to die to make a quick buck, and the G20 summits and UN are our only tentative hold on world peace!

        hth

  3. if you are going to take issue with cops, perhaps using the Occutards as the protagonist is not the best move. Sorry, but I got pretty damn sick of watching these folks over everyone else’s property and rights.

    When you abuse your freedoms of speech and assembly to the point of becoming a quasi-criminal element, I lose sympathy when cops over-react. There were no stories of police abuse during tea party rallies; there might be a reason for that.

    1. Not really.

      To me one of the most galling things about the entire Occupy episode was that when the cops SHOULD HAVE gotten out the scoops and the billyclubs (to break up the occupation itself) they didn’t. But when the cops SHOULD HAVE respected the protestors’ rights (during marches and such) all of a sudden it turned into a Nordiques / Canadiens “let’s sucker punch everybody” brawl.

      It’s almost as if the cops were determined to do the wrong thing in every circumstance.

      1. They’re legally overpowered LEOs in a progressive fortress of a city. No shit they’re going to do the wrong thing every time I’d be surprised if they didn’t.

        1. *every time.

      2. I think that is because cops are bullies. The times they should have gotten out the clubs was the times the protesters were actually violent. That is hard. Whereas when the protestors were peaceful and just exercising their rights, it is easy to beat the shit out of them.

        1. Detroit ’67

          1. The Watts riots in the mid 60s The LA cops just stood back, protected the white neighborhoods and let the mob run wild.

            1. To be fair, if a full-blown riot erupts without warning, there’s not much good cops can do by jumping into the middle of the mess. Containment is a better strategy.

              I’m sure the LAPD’s motivation was more like what you’re talking about, but they may have been right for the wrong reasons.

      3. “To me one of the most galling things about the entire Occupy episode was that when the cops SHOULD HAVE gotten out the scoops and the billyclubs (to break up the occupation itself) they didn’t. ”

        One of the best examples of this, ironically, is the Berkley incident. The police have gotten so much undue shit over that situation because people watched a Michael Moore job of a Youtube clip, but the full 15:00 version is online and availible and it makes it pretty damn clear it was the protesters in the wrong.

        The officers came by, took down tents within all legality, cuffed those who put up a fight and were about to leave when the students -led by a douchebag who shouted, I quote verbatim and shit you not, “LET’S PEACEFULLY ADVANCE ON THEM!”- proceeded to crowd them in a big circle and refused to let the officers go until they met demands shouted at them via the cultish magic of “human mic” .

        No fan of the police or police brutality, but I like Beerputschers and Bolsheviks a whole lot fuckin’ less.

        1. Oh boy, you’re about to get flamed for defending the cops.

        2. Yes, random occutards said a lot of shit. That doesn’t change the fact that all they actually did was sit on the ground . If you watched the video, then you saw that those poor, threatened cops were just stepping over the protesters the entire time.

      4. Private property mattered not, but the moment the Occupiers walked on the RoAdS!!@!, shit hit the fan.

    2. “There were no stories of police abuse during tea party rallies; there might be a reason for that.”

      ^This.

      1. There’s no law against picking up random litter, at least not until the SEIU figures out it cuts into their dues-paying members’ racket.

  4. Thugs be thuggin’.

  5. Additionally, police officers who broke the law were let off with warnings, or less.

    I think we all know this can’t possibly be the case. I personally have it from a reliable source that, if anything, law enforcement officers are held to an incredibly high standard and often receive harsher punishment than civilians for criminal behavior.

    1. Exactly. Just last week, a gangbanger who shot a man in the back and killed him because he was carving some wood with a knife got off with administrative leave — paid.

  6. Speaking of the NYPD and their “pro-active policing” I am honestly surprised they don’t use the vanishingly low rate of gun confiscations in Stop and Frisk as “proof” of that program’s success and then claim the need to expand the program to random warrantless searches of residences. Smash and Grab: coming soon to an impoverished neighborhood near you!

    And, of course, Stop and Frisk checkpoints at all entry points into the city to interdict gun smuggling.

    1. And, of course, Stop and Frisk checkpoints at all entry points into the city to interdict gun smuggling.

      LOL. IF they did that they would stop and frisk upper middle class and rich white people. And that is not going to happen.

    2. Duh. Tiger repelling rocks are cheaper than drones.

  7. if anything, law enforcement officers are held to an incredibly high standard

    I have heard they actually Do Their Jobs on occasion.

  8. I’ve heard the U.N. is willing to condone all sorts of violence in the name of ending “occupations”.

  9. asserts that the NYPD committed widespread human rights abuses, and are therefore in violation of international law.

    Yeah good luck with that…

  10. Who the fuck gives a shit about the United Nations and its fucked-up UDHR? Don’t we have our own constitutional laws to rely on?

    1. No, that would be judicial activism.

    2. Constitutional law to a cop walking earth is like the air this sordid creature breathes- invisible. Perhaps this is why the imperialist UN serves as a last resort for the desperate Open Society folk.

  11. Ah, heady times now that the modern American progressive children of the ’60s and their intellectual heirs are in charge of the head-banging law enforcement institutions.

  12. even if you’re unpersuaded by the authors’ appeal to international law

    The Local, State and Federal authorizes are unwilling to pursue legal sanctions against unlawful conduct by the NYPD…so international law is given jurisdiction over sovereign people.

    Can this be considered an example of RC’s iron law?

    Foreseeable consequences are not unintended.

    1. That’s not a foreseeable consequence. It’s not even a consequence since it’s not going to happen; this is just a bunch of people with a legal theory, not an actual judicial ruling.

      Plus, that so-called Law is bogus because it conflates foresight with intent, but that’s another discussion.

      1. It’s not even a consequence since it’s not going to happen; this is just a bunch of people with a legal theory, not an actual judicial ruling.

        So a bunch of statists protest for more statism then a bunch of statists beat them up then a bunch of statists sweep that under the rug then more statists call for international statists to come in.

        All that statism and all resulting in zero protection of rights.

        Just a coincidence I suppose.

  13. OT: Shooting at Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. Unknown number of shooters and victims, possible hostages:

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.c…..oting.html

    1. Just another day of wild west shoot outs in the USA, the country of gunslingers…. nothing to see here please move on…

  14. If these cops do not all go on trial between now and election day, it’s time we clean house of every politician who cooperates in preventing it.

    1. That would require voting, which to many libertarians is like drinking out of the toilet.

      1. But if you vote you might not win!

  15. Can’t they both lose?

    I mean Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, the were pretty clearly engaging in provocation of pretty much anyone who got in their way. I pretty clearly remember them mobbing people to the extent that it wasn’t possible to move without touching them and then screaming that they were being assaulted. I pretty clearly remember one Occutard jumping into my own personal space after he accosted me into a discussion on a midtown street. I’ll support the report’s triggering an investigation if every incident that later proves bogus leads to the accuser being charged with filing a false report and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Until then, I’m inclined to view these accusations as something akin to this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NySN_plfiNI

    1. So a violent crime should not be prosecuted because another violent crime is not?

      Brilliant.

      1. And I say that where, exactly? My point is that I’d take these accusations from Occupy and a friendly group of professors with a grain of salt. They’ve consistently engaged in fabricating incidents of their victimization.

  16. Is it really so shocking that police like beating up hippies? Every hippies that agree with them in wanting more and more government?

    1. D’oh. Even hippies, I mean.

  17. I’m all for prosecution of police for assault to the full extent of the law–as long as the Occupiers are also charged to the full extent of the law including months of trespassing charges, blocking traffic without a permit, destruction of private property, along with many cases of actual assault and battery. So called “human rights” lawyers have no respect for private property, private business, or the hundreds of thousands of ordinary FiDi residents, employees, and tourists who had to deal with their district being turned into a third world refugee camp for unhygienic, violent hippies and bums.

    1. ^THIS.

      I mean, seriously. We’re talking about a grievance mongering concern group that managed to come up with all of 130 alleged incidents, all based on eyewitness testimony with no supporting evidence whatsoever in a day and age when virtually every second of our lives, particularly in situations like this, is caught on video (god knows you’ll never find an occutard without his $500 iPhone), during the course of a massive protest that involved something like 100,000 people and spanned over 3 months.

      If these alleged incidents of “brutality” (DON’T BUMP INTO ME COPPER!) had a chilling effect on speech, you certainly wouldn’t have known it to look at Zuccotti Park during the 3 months when thousands of people were living there for free with taxpayer-provided accommodations, or, say, shitting on cop cars. You’d also think with such a fascist police presence the occutards would have been more fearful of committing rape and sexual assault.

      Even if every tale told in this report were 100% true (in which case I would happily kiss your ass in the middle of Times Square), I think the occutards made out pretty good on the net.

  18. More likely: Not allowed by the progressive politicians to do what they wanted to do when it needed doing, they did it when they could. Being a unionized force, actual punishment under their contract was problematic.

    As for the UN, puleeze.

  19. This sort of thing will never stop. The power that a badge and a gun affords LEO’s at all levels is highly addictive. Many great people, many fair, moral, well respected individuals have succumbed to the belief that they “ARE” the law after a certain length of time on the job.

    The Stanford Prison experiment is playing out in real life everyday on our streets. The ONLY way to fix it is for the community (as a whole) to view a corrupt police officer or agency as they would a foreign occupying force and expel them by whatever means necessary, at all costs. Of course, I’m a bit of an anarchist, so…

  20. These manifold, meticulously-documented abuses, she maintains, undermine the oft-invoked axiom that America is unique among the world for its unwavering commitment to human rights. That mostly nonviolent exhibitions of political speech induced law enforcement to react with such brash disregard for basic liberties, Glenn says, should expose “the double standard inherent in frequent U.S. government critiques of other governments for repressing their peoples’ protest rights.”

  21. Frightening how parts of America are turning into a police state. There seems to be one law for the rich, and another for the poor…

    Remove the police’s sovereign and qualified immunity for such egregious behavior and you’d soon see a difference. Their brutality needs to be prosecuted.

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