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NYC is sued over police handling of protests

Occupy case filed by four members of City Council

NEW YORK - Four lawmakers sued the city Monday over its handling of the Occupy Wall Street protests, saying police conduct is so problematic that the force needs an outside monitor.

The city and police violated demonstrators’ free speech rights, used excessive force, arrested protesters on dubious charges, and interfered with journalists’ and council members’ efforts to observe what was going on, the four City Council members and others say in the federal civil rights suit.

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“This unlawful conduct has been undertaken with the intention of obstructing, chilling, deterring, and retaliating against [the] plaintiffs for engaging in constitutionally protected protest activity,’’ said the suit, which was filed a day before Occupy and labor activists planned a large May Day march.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended police handling of the protests.

“This police department knows how to control crowds without excessive force. . . . They do allow you to protest, but they don’t let it get out of hand,’’ he said after some council members complained about what they called police brutality at a March Occupy demonstration.

While Occupy activists have gone to court before over particular episodes in the movement’s contentious history with the city, the new lawsuit is a nearly 150-page compendium of complaints, amplified by the council members’ participation. A local Democratic Party official, freelance journalists, and Occupy activists also are plaintiffs.

Their criticisms range from a police official’s use of pepper spray on penned-in protesters in September to the temporary removal of demonstrators from Manhattan’s Union Square in March.

The council members’ involvement in the Occupy suit helps dramatize its argument that police oversight is so ineffective it warrants a court-appointed monitor.

The officials want an independent eye to review all of the more than 2,000 Occupy-related arrests and to explore the closures of Zuccotti Park and some other public spaces.

The four lawmakers - Letitia James, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Ydanis Rodriguez, and Jumaane Williams - said they felt they needed to pursue avenues beyond City Hall to address their growing concern.

“We need accountability, we need relief . . . and we’re not going to just sit idly by,’’ Williams said.

He and Mark-Viverito were among dozens of people who calmly sat down in a roadway near the Brooklyn Bridge during a Nov. 17 demonstration.

Their disorderly conduct cases are on track to be dismissed if they avoid rearrest.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, was accused of resisting arrest while trying to get to the protesters’ encampment in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park as police uprooted them Nov. 15.

He emerged with visible scrapes to his head and said police assaulted him. Prosecutors recently dropped the charges against the councilor, saying they could not secure the testimony of a key officer in the episode.

The lawsuit, crafted by lawyers Leo Glickman, Yetta Kurland, and Wylie Stecklow, also seeks unspecified damages and court orders about access to public spaces and other issues in the case.

The lawsuit was filed the same day as another lawsuit by five individuals who said their constitutional rights were violated when police officers kept them inside an area surrounded by metal barricades for nearly two hours on Nov. 30 as they tried to participate in an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.

The lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan sought unspecified damages and class action status. The city Law Department said Monday it had not yet seen either lawsuit and was awaiting an opportunity to review each.

Also Monday, a trial began in New York for 20 activists who converged on a police station to protest a controversial police technique went on trial Monday. They include ministers and Princeton University scholar and civil rights advocate Cornel West.

The demonstrators were arrested on disorderly conduct charges in October outside a Harlem police station while decrying the Police Department’s practice of stopping, questioning, and sometimes frisking people who are acting suspiciously or meet crime suspects’ descriptions, according to police.

Police say the practice has proven vital to curbing crime. Opponents say it amounts to racial profiling and unfairly targets innocent people.

“The system is breaking the spirit of too many young people,’’ West, a professor of African-American studies said outside court. “We were willing to be arrested, and we’re willing to go to jail.’’

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