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NYCLU Post-RNC Report: City Must Change Protest Policies

One year to the day after the opening of the Republican National Convention in New York, the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a report reviewing police practices and proposing a range of recommendations.

The NYCLU report ‘Rights and Wrongs at the RNC: A Special Report About Police and Protest at the Republican National Convention’ recommends the establishment of an independent City agency to oversee the planning and management of large demonstrations. The report says the most troubling aspect of the NYPD’s actions during the Convention was its resort to mass arrest tactics that resulted in large numbers of innocent people being swept into police custody.

“The historical account provided by ‘Rights and Wrongs at the RNC’ is particularly important since the NYPD has defended all of its actions during the Convention and has insisted that it made no mistakes,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “The performance of police was decidedly a mixed one. While hundreds of thousands of people were able to make their voices heard, the right to protest was severely undermined by the mass arrests of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators and bystanders, the pervasive surveillance of lawful demonstrators, and the illegal fingerprinting and prolonged detention of nearly 1,500 people charged with mostly minor offenses. This compromised their Constitutional right to protest.”

Among the recommendations from ‘Rights and Wrongs’ is that the City establish an agency independent of the NYPD to oversee the planning and management of large demonstrations, with the NYPD remaining part of the planning — but with a focus on law enforcement. ‘Rights and Wrongs’ also calls for an end to the indiscriminate tactics by police that sweep up lawful protesters and innocent bystanders; and for an end to the practice of fingerprinting those arrested for minor offenses. The report also calls on the NYPD not to detain people arrested for minor offenses for excessive periods of time and for arraignment; and to ensure that any holding facilities for arrestees are open to public inspection by appropriate government officials, advocates and members of the press.

The 64-page ‘Rights and Wrongs’ documents the important events in the months leading up to, during and after of the Convention. In a city with a long history of fervent protest activity, the Convention presented a crucial test of our commitment to the right to free speech and dissent. Although demonstrations were peaceful, police arrested more than 1,800 people — the largest number of such arrests at a national convention. More than 90 percent of those arrests have since been dismissed or ended in acquittals.

Among the policing deficiencies cited by the NYCLU report are:

  • The indiscriminate mass arrests by the police of bystanders and peaceful protesters, such as the arrest of 227 demonstrators soon after their anti-war march began on August 31st. On October 6th, the Manhattan District Attorney threw out those arrests at the request of the NYCLU.
  • Detention of protesters for excessively long periods of time in hazardous conditions such as Pier 57, where hundreds of people were held on mostly minor offenses under filthy conditions and often without access to legal assistance or their loved ones. Two-thirds of those arrested who filed complaints with the NYCLU were held for longer than 24 hours; 40 percent were detained for longer than 36 hours — all mostly for minor offenses.
  • The routine fingerprinting of people charged with minor offenses which is not allowed under New York law. This practice raised concerns about whether the NYPD was seeking to build a database of the fingerprints of political activists.

“In an effort to maintain tight control over protest activity, the NYPD too often lost sight of the distinction between lawful and unlawful conduct,” said Christopher Dunn, Associate Legal Director of the NYCLU. “Despite dire predictions that the Convention would be the target of violence or even terrorism, the demonstrations were peaceful.”

In the aftermath of the Convention, the NYCLU filed three federal lawsuits against the NYPD, challenging the mass arrests and detention tactics as well as the fingerprinting of those arrested at the Convention. The NYPD has since announced that it has destroyed all fingerprints. The NYCLU lawsuits are pending in court.

Christopher Dunn is lead counsel in the litigation; NYCLU staff attorney Palyn Hung is assisting with the litigation.

  • The three federal lawsuits filed by the NYCLU against the NYPD are Schiller v. City of New York and Dinler v. City of New York and Page v. City of New York
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