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NYPD’s Defensiveness is no Defense for Mishandling of Occupy Protests

Alex S. Vitale Aug 7, 2012

A recent report by the Protest and Assembly Rights Project highlights the many ways that the New York Police Department has violated both constitutional and international human rights standards in its policing of the Occupy Wall Street movement. These problems are not new. In 2003 and again in 2004, the New York Civil Liberties Union documented extensive failings in NYPD protest policing including unlawful preemptive arrests, restrictions on access to protest areas, excessive subdividing and “penning in” of demonstrators, extensive restrictions on permits, use of force and violent arrests for minor legal violations, inflexibility, and poor communication with demonstrators. These are the same problems identified by the new report.

The NYPD is also out of step with international and American standards. My own research on the policing of the Occupy movement in 10 American cities (cited in the study) shows that New York was second only to Oakland in its infringements on the right to protest. Protests are routinely less restricted throughout Western Europe and the NYPD’s practices are closer to those common in developing democracies such as South Korea, and the former Soviet countries.

Lack of Transparency

The NYPD is also much less transparent than many of its counterparts. The report points out that while the NYPD refused to speak with the authors, they had good cooperation from police officials in Boston and San Francisco. I have also had recent positive interactions with police officials in Chicago and Boston concerning my research and have worked closely with numerous foreign police departments, which tend to welcome outside expertise, even when it is critical.
Rather than cooperating with research, the NYPD has a closed door policy. It resists all attempts to obtain information either in the form of documents or interviews. Journalists as well as researchers and even the City Council have complained for years about the secretive culture of the NYPD and many news organizations and civil rights groups have been forced to sue the NYPD for even the most basic information.

The NYPD’s response to the writers of this report was that it could not comment because of pending civil and criminal cases. It is certainly true that the NYPD is subject to numerous lawsuits over its conduct at demonstrations and that they have an interest in managing their legal liabilities. Having said that, the NYPD uses this justification in what appears to be an inconsistent and self-serving manner. When it is to the benefit of the department the top brass regularly make public statements and release documents. Current litigation against “stop, question, and frisk” practices hasn’t dampened Commissioner Kelley’s willingness to actively and publicly defend the policy.

Learning from Other Cities
Perhaps if the NYPD spent less time denigrating its critics and sealing off information and more time cooperating with and listening to its critics, it wouldn’t be the subject of so much litigation. Police departments in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles also had to deal with large and contentious Occupy groups, and yet there is little or no litigation pending in those cities.

The report ends by expressing support for an independent Inspector General for the NYPD that can gain access to police records and make recommendations for changing policies and practices. This goes far beyond the jurisdiction of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which only handles individual complaints of misconduct. Momentum for such an outside monitor is growing as groups like the Police Reform Organizing Project and the Communities United for Police Reform make similar calls because of NYPD misconduct on a range of issues, including excessive “stop and frisk” practices, spying against Muslims, and harassment of sex workers. It’s time we had an effective watchdog for the NYPD that can insure that one of the city’s most important public agencies is subject to the will of the people it polices.

Alex S. Vitale is Associate Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He has written extensively about protest policing and is a frequent commentator on these issues in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR and many other media outlets. He is a policy advisor to the Police Reform Organizing Project at the Urban Justice Center.

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