After years of clashes in the street and the courts, the New York Police Department has agreed to a legal settlement that will overhaul how it handles demonstrations and ban the practice of boxing in protesters and then arresting them.
In addition to ending that practice, known as kettling, the department will use a tiered system of de-escalation for protests before deploying more officers and will install a high-ranking executive to make sure officers are complying with new rules.
The department agreed to the sweeping changes as part of a deal filed in federal court on Tuesday with the office of Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, who sued the agency in January 2021 over what she called widespread abuses during protests the previous summer after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Commissioner Edward Caban said the protests had “presented many unique challenges for officers, who did their best to protect people’s rights to peaceful expression while addressing acts of lawlessness.” But he said that the agreement “represents the department’s commitment to continually improving to ensure the public remains safe and individual rights are protected.”
The settlement, which capped a legal fight that began after images of violent confrontations between the police and protesters stunned residents and many city leaders, will force the country’s largest police department to dramatically change how it responds to peaceful demonstrations.
“The right to peacefully assemble and protest is sacrosanct and foundational to our democracy,” Ms. James said in a statement. “Too often, peaceful protesters have been met with force that has harmed innocent New Yorkers simply trying to exercise their rights.”
Mayor Eric Adams said in a news release that the settlement struck a proper balance.
“Our administration is committed to improving our policies to keep New Yorkers safe and protect their civil liberties,” he said, adding that the agreement would “ensure that we are both protecting public safety and respecting protesters’ First Amendment rights.”
More than 2,000 demonstrators were arrested during the protests three years ago, most of them while protesting peacefully. An investigation by the attorney general’s office found that police officers beat protesters with batons, rammed them with bicycles, arrested legal observers and medics without proper justification, and used the containment strategy in which protesters were penned in by the police, then charged at or beaten with batons.
Last March, the city agreed to pay $21,500 to each of hundreds of demonstrators who were subject to kettling in the Bronx during racial justice protests, according to a separate legal settlement.
According to the settlement filed Tuesday, the department will also be overseen by a committee made up of representatives from Ms. James’s office, the commissioner of the Department of Investigations, the New York Civil Liberties Union and other agencies. The police executive assigned to supervise protest responses would also be a member of the committee.
The committee will monitor the department’s implementation and compliance with the new reforms, according to the settlement.
“This landmark settlement holds the N.Y.P.D., the nation’s largest and most influential police force, to its oath to protect New Yorkers’ right to protest,” said Molly Biklen, the deputy legal director of the Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit against the department with the Legal Aid Society that was later combined with Ms. James’s suit. “The N.Y.P.D.’s violent response to protesters during the 2020 demonstrations for Black lives made clear to the world what too many New Yorkers already knew: that the N.Y.P.D. is unable or unwilling to police itself.”