New York City reached a historic settlement this week on behalf of more than 1,300 people who were attacked by police while protesting the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.
The plaintiffs claimed that the New York Police Department violated protesters’ civil and constitutional rights by making mass arrests, using excessive force, using pepper spray improperly, and using a tactic called kettling to trap and arrest protesters ahead of an imposed curfew.
The proposed settlement will pay out $13 million to 1,380 protesters — about $10,000 per person — the largest total payout to protesters in a class-action suit in the United States, according to the plaintiffs. The settlement did not impose any reforms on the NYPD.
What the suit means for policing will depend on how New Yorkers and the city respond, said Gideon Oliver, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “Judged by that yardstick, this is a huge victory,” Oliver said. “But whether or not it changes police practices is another story, and depends on how New Yorkers — and the city government — react.
“We can’t let the police count this win for protesters as just another cost of doing business,” he said, “as they have so many times in the past.”
The settlement comes four months after another major settlement between the city and Floyd protesters in March that paid a record $7 million to more than 300 people. In both cases, forensic reconstruction of the events played a key role in winning the settlements. Several other major cities have paid out large settlements to protesters in recent lawsuits aided by forensic reconstruction.
Between late May and early June 2020, at the height of the movement for racial justice sparked by Floyd’s killing, protesters advocating against police misconduct were met with extreme forms of police abuse. “Thousands exercised their constitutional rights to protest and were met with violence and indiscriminate arrests by the NYPD,” the plaintiffs said in a Thursday press release.
“We can see repeatedly, city after city, situation after situation, that the police are strategically, systematically violating our civil rights.”
“It’s great when we can use technology to our benefit because we know it’s been used against us so often,” Savitri Durkee, a plaintiff in the suit, told The Intercept. “Unfortunately, we can’t just rely on sunshine and the public interest to see what’s going on.”
She added, “We can see repeatedly, city after city, situation after situation, that the police are strategically, systematically violating our civil rights.”
Plaintiffs in the case noted that police had responded to other protests, including “Blue Lives Matter” and pro-police demonstrations, without using the force displayed against racial justice protesters. “In other words, it is the message of the protest that determines whether Defendants will respond with violent tactics and indiscriminate mass arrests,” the plaintiffs wrote in their suit.
Shortly after the suit was filed in 2021, the city moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the protests had passed and that the city had already made changes at the NYPD and implemented other reforms recommended in the wake of the protests. In July 2021, a judge dismissed parts of the complaint that singled out city officials but granted others, allowing the case to move forward.
The suit relied on thousands of videos from more than 80 locations, including footage from police body cameras and helicopter surveillance. The deluge of video was sorted, analyzed, and reconstructed by SITU Research, a group that does visual investigations related to injustices and civil liberties. SITU Research has worked on a handful of recent cases that relied on forensic reconstruction and resulted in major settlements for protesters.
While settlements for class action plaintiffs in cases of police brutality have been common throughout recent history, more recent settlements paid to protesters have broken state and national records. The growing size and frequency of settlements has drawn attention to the financial burden that police misconduct places on public coffers.
The shift, however, is unlikely to have a major impact on police conduct without broader institutional changes to policing, said Brad Samuels, director at SITU Research.
“While this settlement and the amounts paid to protesters does represent an important form of redress, our larger goal remains enduring change in policing — not just in New York City but across the United States,” Samuels said. “One thing I am certain of is that surveillance alone, whether in the hands of the state or its citizenry, will not be the agent of meaningful change. While it was clearly impactful to have ample video documentation in this case, we need to continually and critically assess how we are using these tools and to what ends. I am convinced there is much more that can be done.”
“While this settlement and the amounts paid to protesters does represent an important form of redress, our larger goal remains enduring change in policing.”
For the protesters behind the suit, the payout was a welcome first step but left much work to be done to address police misconduct and shore up the right to protest.
“This doesn’t begin to address the injustice. It just gives us a little bit more leeway to address the injustice,” said Durkee, the plaintiff. “The problem we are protesting stands. It is exactly how it was three years ago. All this settlement does is thaw a little bit the chill that has lain over the protest movement since.”