NYPD’s Occupy Pepper Spraying Sparks More Lawsuits, Calls for Police Oversight

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 30:  Demonstrators rally outside One Police Plaza as police look on during a march by protestors affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement on September 30, 2011 New York City. Over one thousand activists marched to protest police brutality while clogging traffic in Lower Manhattan. Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are opposed to outsized corporate profits on Wall Street.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Police resist the urge to spray down the crowd at another Occupy protest in September 2011. Photo: Mario Tama/2011 Getty Images

Last week a report from civil liberties experts at NYU, Fordham, Harvard, and Stanford confirmed what anyone who followed Occupy Wall Street had already concluded: Police were far too rough with protesters. Two protesters already filed a lawsuit in February against the city and NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, whose liberal use of pepper spray was caught on film and widely circulated on YouTube. Today three more protesters filed lawsuits, but in addition to monetary damages they're hoping to force the NYPD to change its policies on the use of force during demonstrations.

According to the New York Times, the suit alleges that Damien Crisp and Julie Lawler were also pepper sprayed by Officer Bologna during a march from Zuccotti Park to Union Square on September 24, even though police had already corralled them within a length of orange netting. The suit states that Crisp was hit directly in his right eye. Aside from the initial burning in his eyes, lungs, and on his skin, he suffered from an inflamed sty for about two weeks and missed three days of work while receiving medical treatment. Lawler says she was temporarily blinded, and the effects of the spray were exacerbated because she was wearing contact lenses.

Following the initial complaints about Bologna, he offered a questionable excuse, lost some vacation time, and was reassigned to Staten Island. Plus, in what may be the most serious punishment, the city is also letting him pay his own legal fees related to the lawsuits filed in February. (There's no word yet on whether the same goes for the new complaints.)

A third plaintiff, Kelly Hanlin, managed to stay out of Bologna's path, but was pepper sprayed in the face during the same protest by an unknown officer. He wasn't restrained by netting, but was nearby attempting to film what he thought was an unnecessarily rough arrest.

None of the three plaintiffs were arrested; one of their attorneys tells Gothamist that isn't surprising. "We are seeing a lot of instances of NYPD officers using force on people, but not arresting them," says Mark Taylor. "A lot of these incidents are the police department attempting to intimidate people, trying to scare them away from demonstrating."

Taylor says that his clients are seeking monetary damages "as anyone would seek if they were wrongfully pepper-sprayed," but their primary goal is changing the way the NYPD operates. "Ray Kelly isn't going to do it, the mayor isn't going to do it, so we're asking the courts to step in," says Taylor. They want to see more judicial supervision of the department's response to protests and held off on filing the suits partially so they'd have the experts' report to bolster their claim. The city has already ignored numerous calls to create an inspector general's office to review its policies, but with new suits filed and the report's authors threatening to ask the Department of Justice to investigate their findings, it seems that the era of asking the NYPD to do a better job of policing itself may be over.