In a significant development, New York City has reached a settlement to pay over $13 million to resolve a civil rights lawsuit representing approximately 1,300 individuals who faced arrests or violence at the hands of the police during the racial injustice demonstrations that swept the city in the summer of 2020. The settlement, filed in Manhattan federal court on Wednesday, is expected to be one of the largest payouts ever awarded in a lawsuit involving mass arrests.
The lawsuit specifically focused on 18 of the numerous protests that erupted in New York City following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Under the terms of the settlement, except for certain cases, each person arrested or subjected to force by the NYPD officers during those events will be eligible for compensation of $9,950.
The agreement comes as a relief for the city as it enables it to avoid a potentially costly and politically contentious trial. Many other cities across the United States are also in the process of negotiating their settlements with protesters who participated in the Black Lives Matter protests, during which approximately 10,000 people were arrested within a few days to protest racist police brutality after Floyd’s death, according to Associated Press.
The plaintiffs in the New York lawsuit were represented by the National Lawyers Guild, who accused NYPD leaders of violating the protesters’ First Amendment rights through a coordinated campaign of indiscriminate brutality and unlawful arrests. On the other hand, the city’s attorneys argued that the police were responding to chaotic and unprecedented situations, citing incidents of unruly protests where police vehicles were set on fire, and officers were attacked with rocks and plastic bottles.
During the 2020 protest marches, NYPD officers employed the crowd control tactic known as kettling, where peaceful protesters were corralled into tight spaces and subjected to attacks with batons and pepper spray before being mass-arrested. One of the named plaintiffs, Adama Sow, described how their group of marchers was trapped by the police without warning, leading to their mistreatment and traumatization.
Throughout the litigation, the city relied on qualified immunity, which shields police officers from lawsuits arising from lawful actions performed in the line of duty. The city defended the decision to arrest medics and legal observers, asserting that it was within the department’s rights.
The lawsuit targeted former Mayor Bill de Blasio, retired NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, and other police leaders as defendants, though the settlement does not require any admission of wrongdoing from either the city or the NYPD.
However, the settlement does not seek to change the NYPD’s practices, unlike some other lawsuits related to the 2020 protests, which aim for injunctive relief.
Another class action settlement was also announced earlier in the year, awarding $21,500 to those arrested during a demonstration in the Bronx, potentially costing the city around $10 million, including legal fees. Additionally, over 600 individuals have brought individual claims against New York City concerning police actions during the 2020 protests, with approximately half of them resulting in settlements and resolutions, amounting to nearly $12 million.