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NYPD Training Deprioritizes First Amendment Education in Policing Protests

by Casey Bastian

A recent cache of internal training documents from the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”) was released pursuant to a Freedom of Information Law request by The Intercept. The documents pertain to training for “Civil Disorder Offenses,” with information drawn from the NYPD’s Police Students’ Guide, Patrol Guide, and New York State Penal Law. The NYPD provides training to its officers on how to handle disruptive behavior during protests. And that’s what concerns critics of the NYPD.

The documents evidence a focus solely on legally permissible ways to essentially restrict demonstrations. The training material provides reference to court rulings that support protests and the First Amendment, but this is not the central theme. Instead, the training encourages restricting protests and arresting protestors in ways that are legally defensible.

Legal Aid Society attorney Corey Stoughton is involved with lawsuits against the city over violent police responses to George Floyd protests. Stoughton calls the NYPD training on protecting the constitutional rights of protestors “rhetorical commitments.”

“The tools you walk out of that training room with, as an officer, are all geared towards finding ways to justify the arrest of protestors, rather than finding practical ways to facilitate peaceful protests and the exercise of free speech rights,” said Stoughton. This is done by finding that otherwise protected speech has become “disorderly conduct,” “loitering,” “unlawful assembly,” or a “riot.”

There is very little real emphasis on the First Amendment protections afforded demonstrators, or how to ensure that the freedom is upheld. Such an attitude towards a constitutional right, that a right is to be protected merely to avoid legal consequences, seems to represent the NYPD’s true view on the constitutional rights of those who dare to challenge or even question the government.

The Intercept reached out to the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of public information, John Miller, for insight. Miller responded via email focused on the fact that the NYPD handles “five to 10 protests daily, the vast majority without incident.” A more complicated aspect of officer training involves “disorder control,” according to Miller. “Policing a peaceful protest requires very little specialized training. Finding the right balance in policing protests does not come with certain or obvious answers, it is an ongoing process,” wrote Miller.

This appears to follow the NYPD’s perception of its own restraint and effectiveness. The training documents aggrandize that the NYPD “has a tradition of restraint and great success in handling the most sensitive demonstrations with respect for the rights of both demonstrators and the general public. Time and again, we have earned our reputation as the finest police department for handing demonstrations.”

The history of the NYPD’s response to protests appears to tell a different story. Critics argue that the NYPD suffers from systemic brutality and no amount of training will ever cure it. The history of past protest suppression supports this belief.

In 1994, the NYPD created the Disorder Control Unit (“DCU”). The DCU was central to documented brutal repressions of past protests. This includes the 2011 Occupy Wall Street events and the 2004 Republican National Convention. The 2004 DCU protest response resulted in legendary police abuses and historic legal settlements of $18 million. This same brutality was evidenced last summer. NYPD officials have attempted to differentiate between the DCU, now known as the Strategic Response Group (“SRG”), and its other 35,000 uniformed police officers. Miller noted that of the 976 complaints filed last summer, only 69 were about SRG officers.

A recent class action lawsuit over the police brutality in response to George Floyd protests further exhibits years of documented abuses. Documents show that “[d]espite the wealth of evidence of NYPD members’ historic brutality against protestors, [the city] has ignored, and/or failed to utilize, relevant information, including information gleaned from reports and lawsuits, as well as other data points to identify deficiencies in NYPD training as it relates to constitutionally compliant protest policing.”

The NYPD tries to label the DCU, and its successor the SRG, as successes because there has been no “large-scale civil disorder” since 1994. Critics believe that that is not a proper measure of success—it’s what tactics were deployed to achieve that outcome that matters.

“There’s really no question that part of what played into the violent response to the protests [last] summer was the NYPD’s failure to absorb lessons from litigation and complaints that emerged from its response to prior incidents. What the summer made clear was that the NYPD has not fully grappled with that history,” added Stoughton.

And this conduct is not isolated to the NYPD; it is an ongoing nationwide problem. American law enforcement has frequently turned protests into violent civil disturbances when controversial decisions are made by officers on the streets that seem abusive and cruel to participants and spectators. This has led some critics to ask: what role, if any, does law enforcement have in controlling lawful assemblies in the future? 



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