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.


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.