City Bar Calls For Investigation Following Arrests Of Legal Observers

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Above photo: National Lawyers Guild legal observer outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington during oral arguments in the consolidated cases Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, on Tuesday, November 11, 2019.

In a statement, the City Bar said it was “gravely concerned” by what it called “concerted efforts” in New York, and across the country, to interfere with the work of observers at mass demonstrations protesting systemic racism and police killings of black Americans.

The New York City Bar Association on Wednesday called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York Police Department to “immediately investigate” the alleged targeting of nine legal observers earlier this month during a protest against police brutality in the Bronx.

In a statement, the City Bar said it was “gravely concerned” by what it called “concerted efforts” in New York, and across the country, to interfere with the work of observers at mass demonstrations protesting systemic racism and police killings of black Americans.

The City Bar specifically cited reports that legal observers associated with the National Lawyers Guild had been pulled out of a crowd in the Bronx, restrained with zip-tie cuffs and detained for 20 minutes. Some officers, the City Bar said, had “illegally accessed” the observers’ privileged documents and took down their personal information, while claiming not to know the function they were serving at the protests.

Legal observers, who wear neon green hats to signal their status, are neutral third-party witnesses tasked with monitoring police conduct at protests and advising demonstrators of their rights if they are arrested. In New York, the NYPD’s patrol manual recognizes their role in recording police activity, and instructs officers not to “[t]hreaten, intimidate, or otherwise discourage an observer from recording the police officer’s activities,” the City Bar said.

The alleged attacks, the statement said, highlighted a “failure” to adequately train officers serving on crowd-control details and a “startling disregard by police forces that their conduct is governed in our society by the rule of law.”

“The City Bar strongly condemns all attacks on legal observers and urges state and local governments, police chiefs, and police unions both to advise their officers that attacks on legal observers are not tolerated, and also to swiftly investigate any incident involving the detention or use of force against a legal observer, and where warranted, prosecute offenders,” the City Bar said.

The statement continued: “As protests and other demonstrations continue, the City Bar specifically calls on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea to immediately investigate the incident in the Bronx, and for all officers in the NYPD to be made aware that the consequences of any illegal targeting of legal observers by police will be swift and severe, including appropriate disciplinary charges and criminal prosecution.”

News outlets in New York began reporting the alleged targeting of legal observers by police on June 5, after de Blasio had implemented an 8 p.m. curfew in response to incidents of violence and looting amid protests following the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. Like credentialed journalists and medical workers, legal observers were exempted from the mayor’s order.

The president of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild in a June 7 letter demanded that Shea discipline officers who searched and detained legal observers the previous week.

According to the letter, police were given the go-ahead to arrest and “round up all the green hats” during a protest in Mott Haven. In some cases, the observers were “kettled” in with protesters and thrown to the ground before being arrested.

De Blasio on June 9 condemned the arrests of legal observers, saying “I will not accept that from the NYPD, if they are in any way violating those very essential rules of a free society,” according to Politico.

The City Bar noted that similar incidents have been occurring outside New York as well, with reports that legal observers had been targets of controversial kettling tactics, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

Protests sparked by Floyd’s death, now in their third week, have already led to a suite of police reforms, including increased accountability and the repeal of a New York state law that had been criticized for shielding officers accused of misconduct.

Tom McParland of New York Law Journal can be contacted at tmcparland@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @TMcParlandALM.

  • Steven Berge

    “We don’t need no stinking observers” seems to be the authoritarian attitude of the police. This is a top down problem, as shown by the persecution of many journalists and publishers of truths embarrassing to a corporate owned government. The gloves are coming off the fascist fists. If we let this movement die, things will be bleak. There have been reports that there will be more people loosing their homes this time, than back in 2008. Dr. King admonished the people to fight against the iniquity of extreme wealth inequality, as one of the legs of exploitation. Go American Yellow Vests! Go BLM!