NYPD to Adopt Policies Protecting Right to Protest to Settle NYCLU Lawsuit

To settle a New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit challenging the policing of large protests, the NYPD has officially agreed to stop sending police horses into crowds without a warning and a chance to disperse, to ensure that pens do not become traps, and to assure that protesters have the information needed to get into demonstration areas.

This is a long overdue recognition by the police department that changes need to be made in the policing of large demonstrations here in New York City,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, who is lead counsel on the case and negotiated the settlement.

Police at the February 15, 2003 Protest on First Avenue (Photo Courtesy of Raven)
“Under the settlement, the NYPD has adopted written policies and agreed to take concrete steps to assure that protesters can gain access to protest areas, must assure that any pens (enclosed areas constructed of interlocking metal barricades) have sufficient openings so that protesters can readily leave and re-enter protest areas, and must assure that the Mounted Unit is not deployed to disperse crowds without adequate advance warnings and an opportunity for people to disperse.

“The right to protest without police interference is central to our democratic society, and this settlement is an important step towards assuring the NYPD will not be an obstacle to peaceful protest,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman, a featured speaker at a large demonstration that today’s settlement addresseses. “We will be vigilant in assuring compliance with these policies.”

The settlement, which was recently approved by federal judge Robert W. Sweet, arises out of three cases the NYCLU filed in November 2003 following the tumultuous anti-war protests that took place in the spring of 2003 as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq. Most notably, at a February 15, 2003 protest on First Avenue near the United Nations, hundreds of thousands of people were unable to get to the protest because the police closed access points and failed to inform the public about alternative access routes; police horses charged into crowds of people trapped while trying to reach the demonstration, striking many protesters; and thousands of people at the demonstration were trapped in block-long pens on First Avenue from which they could not leave.

Fearing that similar problems would arise during the Republican National Convention, the NYCLU sought a temporary court order for the Convention and, following a June 2004 trial, Judge Sweet issued a preliminary injunction that restricted NYPD practices during the Convention and afterwards. The settlement announced today replaces the temporary court order with formal NYPD policies, which require the following:

• When the police close any sidewalks or roadways leading to a protest, the Department will issue access information to organizers, the public and the press; officers assigned to the protest will be given detailed instructions about street closings and points of access; and officers on the scene are required to provide access information to those seeking to attend the protest. Bullhorns and sound equipment will be made available for officers to communicate this information on the scene.

• When the police use “pens” at protests, protesters must be allowed to leave them “at any time” and the pens must have sufficient openings so protesters can leave expeditiously and also return to the event.

• When the police intend to use the Mounted Unit to disperse protesters, they must ensure that “a crowd or group to be dispersed has sufficient avenues of escape and/or retreat available to them and has had a reasonable chance to disperse.”

The cases that led to this settlement were brought on behalf of three individuals and the NYCLU itself.

Jeremiah Gutman was attempting to reach the First Avenue protest with his wife and young children when they were caught in a crowd that police blocked from entering the protest area without providing any information about alternative access. At one point, the Mounted Unit moved through the crowd knocking people down. Gutman was struck by someone who had been hit by a horse, was knocked to the pavement and was injured. He never made it to the protests.

Jeremy Conrad, who was a law student at the time (and has since become a lawyer), was trapped in a huge crowd on Third Avenue that had been blocked from entering the protest and was not provided with any information about how to enter the protest through alternative routes. Commanding officers then sent the Mounted Unit into the crowd without warning or an opportunity to disperse, and Conrad was stepped on by a police horse and injured. After he complained about the use of the horses, he was singled out for arrest and held in a police van for many hours. He never made it to the protest.

Annie Stauber was a wheelchair-bound woman who made it to First Avenue on February 15 but was then trapped in a pen with thousands of other protesters. When she attempted to leave the pen to go home for medical reasons, a police officer refused to allow her to exit and broke her wheelchair when she tried to do so. The Civilian Complaint Review Board found that the officer had engaged in misconduct.

In addition to agreeing to implement the new policies, the City is paying Conrad $15,000 for his injuries and paying $10,000 for Gutman’s injuries.

NYCLU Staff Attorney Palyn Hung was also co-counsel on the case.

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