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Strategic Initiatives – Struggle For Justice

Reducing Violent Police Presence at Protests

The NYCLU has long prioritized transforming the role of law enforcement across New York. Policing remains dangerously unregulated and racially biased, and it fuels mass incarceration, which cripples whole segments of society. We fight for greater police transparency and accountability, and the reallocation of funds into public services that keep communities safe. Because we know that one of the best ways to reduce the harms of policing is to get officers out of situations where they don’t belong, we support efforts to remove police officers from involvement with mental health emergencies, the homeless crisis, and student discipline. Additionally, we fiercely defend the First Amendment rights of protestors subjected to violence, intimidation, and wrongful arrest by out-of-control law enforcement.

In September, the NYCLU, the Legal Aid Society, and New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a landmark settlement agreement that should significantly reform the NYPD’s policing of protests. It’s a huge win for the First Amendment rights of demonstrators and will better protect the public and members of the press from excessive use of force. A key provision restricts the NYPD’s deployment of its notorious Strategic Response Group (SRG) to certain circumstances, which will further reduce misconduct, violence, and unjustified detentions. The settlement has been approved by the court, after the defeat of a challenge by the union for rank-and-file police officers, but we will play a monitoring role and will hold the NYPD accountable for the agreement’s conditions.

The agreement is the resolution of several lawsuits filed after the NYPD brutalized and violated the rights of demonstrators during the racial justice uprisings in 2020. The centerpiece of the reforms is a new, four-tiered response system that dictates allowable police presence based on the size, scale, and conditions at a protest. This is critical because large numbers of officers at protests increase the chances of escalating violence and false arrests. The agreement requires the NYPD to minimize its presence at protests, use de-escalation techniques that facilitate the First Amendment rights of protesters, stop using the dangerous crowd-control tactic known as “kettling,” and improve access to protests for members of the press to record and report.

At the same time, the settlement builds in safeguards to maintain NYPD compliance, including a new oversight committee that will review the department’s implementation of the reforms over a three-year period. It also establishes a centralized senior executive role in the NYPD responsible for overseeing all policies, procedures, and trainings required under the agreement; authorizing certain forms of escalation and dispersal orders; and keeping thorough records of all decision-making.

That the City and the NYPD have signed off on this agreement provides reason to believe there’s political will to follow its requirements, but we know from experience that holding the NYPD to reforms is difficult; it will take more than a lawsuit to end the NYPD’s abuse. Still, we have shown that we can force meaningful shifts in the department’s behavior and hold policymakers accountable through sustained community involvement, activism, and pressure. The NYCLU’s settlement team will work tirelessly to hold the NYPD accountable, and our protest monitors will continue to provide on-the-ground reporting. But all of us—activists, community advocates, watchdogs, elected officials—must continue to push for a full disbanding of the SRG so those funds can be better used by our communities.

The right to peacefully assemble and protest is sacrosanct. New Yorkers must be free to make their voices heard without fear, intimidation, or injury. Our fight to limit the harms of policing while pushing to transform it completely is critical to defending our civil liberties and creating a just and equitable society for all.

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We filed lawsuits against the NYPD, demanding complete current data on its vehicle stops in recent years and released an analysis that reveals the vast racial disparities of those searched or arrested during these stops.

Read more about our efforts to demand greater police oversight and accountability.

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