Is the NYPD Out of Control? New Lawsuit Takes on Bloomberg's 'Private Army'

Is the NYPD Out of Control? New Lawsuit Takes on Bloomberg's 'Private Army'

Rodriguez v. Winski calls for the creation of an independent federal position to oversee the NYPD.
Photo Credit: Nick Turse
 
 

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg referred to the NYPD as his “private army” and the “seventh largest standing army in the world,” he managed to provoke scorn from all but his most slavish admirers. Though his description was wildly inaccurate regarding the size of the department, his overall Putin-esque characterization of the cops as a extra-municipal tool to be deployed at his whim struck many as remarkably and accidentally honest.

Bloomberg does deserve some credit for managing to hoodwink a large number of New Yorkers into believing he's some sort of benevolent technocrat instead of the corporate oligarch he so clearly is. But when it comes to handling Occupy, Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly – and the NYPD at large – are facing a new level of resistance.

Fifteen plaintiffs, including five elected officials, members of the press, an Iraq war veteran, and Occupy Wall Street activists are suing the city in federal court, alleging gross misconduct ranging from false arrest and imprisonment to possible conspiracy between the police department and JPMorgan Chase to chill citizen's rights to peaceably assemble. The suit is known as Rodriguez v. Winski and calls for, among other measures, the creation of an independent federal position to oversee the NYPD. The department is out of control, the suit alleges, and is incapable of holding itself accountable. 

I'm also a plaintiff in the case and can testify from first-hand experience that the NYPD is out of control. This is obviously not news to the hundreds of thousands of young men of color who are stopped and frisked by the cops every year, and it's always important to stress that the kind of suppression a political movement like Occupy faces is both quantitatively and categorically different than the oppression marginalized communities face. So the stories laid out below come with the caveat of “police brutality in New York isn't new, but it's crazy and maybe we can get this under control.”

In some ways what makes this lawsuit so extraordinary is the inclusion of four city council members,  one of whom was beaten bloody and arrested by the police. Ydanis Rodriguez, the lead plaintiff in the case, was prevented from witnessing the eviction of Liberty Square by the NYPD on November 15, 2011. Rodriquez represents the 10th Council District in Manhattan and on the night of the raid he went to Liberty Square to exercise his right to observe police actions as granted to him by the council charter. By the end of the night Rodriguez was bloodied and in police custody, thereby rendering him incapable of fulfilling his duty to his constituents to act as a monitor.

More outrageous still is what the department did as damage control. When Time magazine picked up the story, it posted a photo of Rodriguez on the ground getting arrested. The complaint alleges that police officials contacted Time, requesting the dramatic photo be removed. Several hours later the story was accompanied by a photograph from an unrelated event showing Rodriguez speaking pleasantly with officers. Until this complaint was filed and reported on, this incident remained unknown.

Suppression of the Press 

The NYPD's contempt for the press has been well documented. Ray Kelly's widely circulated memo telling his officers to allow the press to do their job has been uniformly ignored, which shows either Kelly's lack of control over his forces, or, more likely, the bad-faith in which it was written and distributed. From arresting so-called mainstream journalists like plaintiff Stephanie Keith, to harassing freelance photographers, to preventing the press from witnessing police misconduct, to manhandling reporters and their crews, to threatening to confiscate press badges, to (in my case) getting arrested for not having press credentials, it's fair to say the NYPD considers the First Amendment more of a friendly suggestion than a constitutional right.

One part of the story that hasn't been reported, until now, centers on plaintiff Justin Sullivan, who was arrested while filming arrests at a “mic check” action in Grand Central Station. Upon being taken into custody his still camera and video camera were confiscated, which is standard procedure. Sullivan was released from the precinct with several court summonses, but without his camera. It's worth quoting the complaint in full (emphasis mine):

107. When Plaintiff Justin Sullivan went back to the MTA Police Precinct located at Grand Central Station to ask for his missing video camera, he was re-arrested and held for approximately 24 more hours.

108. Additional charges were issued against Plaintiff Justin Sullivan at that time.

109. Plaintiff Justin Sullivan's still camera was not returned.

110. Plaintiff Justin Sullivan's video camera was not returned.

111. Plaintiff Justin Sullivan's data chips were not returned

112. A witness reported that she observed an officer who fits the physical description of Officer Lakeram (who specifically requested JS's cameras – JK) instructing another officer to break the camera.

That's an astounding set of allegations. After being arrested for filming somebody being arrested (who was actually speaking out against a previous arrest), Sullivan was released, re-arrested, and issued further charges. Beyond all that, his camera – which contained evidence regarding the previous arrests – was allegedly destroyed and his data cards were either destroyed, lost, or are still being held somewhere.

Also previously unreleased, but contained in the video submitted along with the complaint, is evidence of an MTA police dog biting the second arrested protester in the leg (min 4:15). I know from personal conversations I had after the incident that the victim suffered substantial pain as a result of the bite. These are just two instances of police misconduct at one relatively low-profile Occupy action. The complaint itself highlights too many other examples to enumerate here.

The Role of Chase Bank

One of the key defendants in this suit is JPMorgan Chase, which, compared to the NYPD and Brookfield, has remained relatively removed from Occupy – publicly, at least. Behind the scenes is a very different story, one that remains shrouded in mystery, but gets to the core of what Occupy is about. The suit alleges a conspiracy between Mayor Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and employees of JP Morgan Chase to deprive citizens of their constitutional rights. From September 17 until at least October 12, the NYPD barred Occupy activists from engaging in speech or assembly in Chase Manhattan Plaza, a privately owned public space. That, in and of itself, is troubling enough. But on or around October 12, the complaint alleges, the NYPD barricades came down and were replaced by a much taller fence believed to be the property of JPMorgan Chase. Again, from the complaint:

“[T]he close temporal proximity between the removal of the initial barriers and their replacement with the subsequent private fence shows that Defendant J.P. Morgan and state actors conferred and conspired to continue the violation of Constitutional rights of individuals seeking to gather and exercise their rights in said publicly accessible open area.”

In early October, JP Morgan issued a press release touting its $4.6 million donation to the New York Police Foundation, the largest in the NYPF's history. The contribution began in September 2010, well before the emergence of Occupy, so the money wasn't related to the protesters initially, although the relationship between the financial firm and the police remains unclear. The NYPF is closely associated with the NYPD; the homepage on its website features a photo of NYPD Commissioner Kelly. We don't know what effect that donation had on police policies and behavior. But we do know that Occupy activists were barred from exercising their rights due to the content of their speech, and more needs to be revealed about the collusion between the police and financial elites.

 

The complaints go on and on. Also a plaintiff in the suit is Jeffery McClain, an Iraq war veteran who was beaten and called a traitor by police after marching with Occupy Wall Street. And there's Peter Dutro, who was arrested while inside a bank for protesting outside the bank, a charge which carries with it all sorts of metaphysical implications.

What's clear is that Mayor Bloomberg, the NYPD, and the financial elites are out of control, and the police department is unable or unwilling to hold itself accountable. There needs to be a federal level, independent monitor to oversee the NYPD for the good of the public and the protection of our constitutional rights. This suit is one of many steps being taken to better understand and more effectively combat the forces seeking to erode our rights one arrest at a time, and the battle, like this lawsuit, is just beginning.

 

John Knefel is the co-host of Radio Dispatch and a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter at @johnknefel.

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