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New York: Inquiry Confirms Police Misconduct at Protests

Recommended Reforms Fall Far Short

(New York) – The recommendations by New York City’s oversight agency for changes in police department operations in a December 18, 2020 report appear to fall far short of the reforms needed, Human Rights Watch said today. The Department of Investigation, in its report, criticized the New York Police Department (NYPD) for its misconduct during protests that erupted across the city following George Floyd’s killing in May.

In a video response, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was “sorry” and acknowledged that some “individual officers did something wrong” and that “there has to be discipline.” Yet the mayor has given no indication that senior level commanders would be held to account for their roles in planning, overseeing, and spreading misinformation about the brutal police assaults on protesters that Human Rights Watch and others have called for. De Blasio, when asked whether he would take disciplinary action against Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, during Brian Lehrer’s “Ask the Mayor” segment on public radio on December 18, said the police officers did not commit “fireable offenses,” but “we have to do it better going forward.”

“Mayor de Blasio’s apology and promise to do better is a woefully inadequate response to the scale of police misconduct and abuse that has now been documented in detail by New York City’s own Department of Investigation,” said Laura Pitter, deputy US program director at Human Rights Watch. “Six months on, the protesters, observers, medics, and others who were beaten, pepper sprayed, and arbitrarily detained for exercising their basic human rights deserve to see justice delivered.”

The Department of Investigation confirmed much of what Human Rights Watch and others documented regarding police misconduct during the protests across New York City in May and June. During the Mott Haven protest in the Bronx on June 4, which Human Rights Watch extensively documented in a report, the agency found that the NYPD’s “mass arrest of protesters for curfew violations, in the absence of evidence of actual violence, was disproportionate,” and that the arrests were “accomplished in part by using physical force against protesters, including striking them with batons.”

The Department of Investigation recommends, among other things, creating new police units, adjusting the ways that officers are trained, and changing the NYPD investigation and accountability structure. But these changes will not improve the city’s ability to impose disciplinary measures independent of the NYPD, Human Rights Watch said.

In its report “‘Kettling’ Protesters in the Bronx: Systemic Police Brutality and its Costs in the United States,” Human Rights Watch recommended that New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board should be re-envisioned to make it a truly independent community oversight body, with full access to police records, subpoena power, authority to conduct investigations, and the power to discipline officers and command staff.

Human Rights Watch also recommended reducing the role of police in addressing societal problems. This should include shifting resources from policing to support services that directly address underlying issues such as substance use disorders, homelessness, and poverty and that improve access to quality education, health care, and mental health support.

“Mayor de Blasio should take urgent action to appropriately discipline those most responsible, and to start addressing the structural problems with policing in New York City,” Pitter said. “If he fails to do so, he too should be held to account.”

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