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An Innovative Approach to Justice for New York Police Violence

Mott Haven Community Seeks Reparations as Alternative to Costly, Protracted Litigation

New York City police detain a legal observer during a peaceful protest in Mott Haven on June 4, 2020. © 2020 C.S. Muncy

The Bronx Defenders, a public legal defense organization representing 24 people alleging the New York Police Department (NYPD) committed abuses against them during protests last summer, are taking a different approach to achieving justice.

Instead of suing the NYPD, as many other organizations and the New York State Attorney General have done, the Bronx Defenders asked the New York City Comptroller on Tuesday to approve a reparations fund to compensate people for injuries and other harms from NYPD abuse, as well as to fund public services as determined by the Mott Haven community. They see this as an alternative to putting their clients through years of protracted litigation at significant cost as in past cases.

Those the Bronx Defenders represent were injured by the NYPD when the police assaulted a group of protesters demonstrating peacefully against police brutality and racial injustice in the Mott Haven area of the Bronx on June 4. Human Rights Watch issued a report and, with Situ Research, a forensic video on the crackdown and police abuses. We concluded that the NYPD, unprovoked and without warning, trapped protesters using a tactic known as “kettling,” minutes before a city-wide curfew, and then attacked them. At least 61 protesters were injured, some seriously; more than 250 people were arbitrarily arrested.

The request on the part of the Bronx Defenders stems from years of frustration over the failure of prior lawsuits to significantly curb NYPD abuses and achieve accountability for unlawful and excessive use of force. For example, the city already paid out more than $35 million to settle claims associated with the NYPD’s response to protests during the Republican National Convention in 2004, including for using tactics similar to those deployed against protesters last summer.

Reparations for police abuse in the US is not new but it is not common either. In 2015 the city of Chicago approved a $5.5 million reparations package to address wrongs perpetrated from the 1970s to early 1990s. With an epidemic of dramatic failures in police accountability systems across the country, it is not surprising that communities are increasingly turning to approaches such as these to seek appropriate redress for institutionalized racism and state-sanctioned violence. “Adequate, effective and prompt reparation” is well-established in international human rights law. Governments have paid reparations for wrongdoing in various contexts. New York should consider this innovative, more holistic approach.

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