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Is the NYPD Out of Control? New Lawsuit Takes on Bloomberg's 'Private Army'

Rodriguez v. Winski calls for the creation of an independent federal position to oversee the NYPD.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg  referred to the NYPD as his “private army” and the “seventh largest standing army in the world,” he managed to provoke scorn from all but his most slavish admirers. Though his description was wildly  inaccurate regarding the size of the department, his overall Putin-esque characterization of the cops as a extra-municipal tool to be deployed at his whim struck many as remarkably and accidentally honest.

Bloomberg does deserve some credit for managing to hoodwink a large number of New Yorkers into believing he's some sort of benevolent technocrat instead of the corporate oligarch he so clearly is. But when it comes to handling Occupy, Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly – and the NYPD at large – are facing a new level of resistance.

Fifteen plaintiffs, including five elected officials, members of the press, an Iraq war veteran, and Occupy Wall Street activists are  suing the city in federal court, alleging gross misconduct ranging from false arrest and imprisonment to possible conspiracy between the police department and JPMorgan Chase to chill citizen's rights to peaceably assemble. The suit is known as  Rodriguez v. Winski and calls for, among other measures, the creation of an independent federal position to oversee the NYPD. The department is out of control, the suit alleges, and is incapable of holding itself accountable. 

I'm also a plaintiff in the case and can testify from first-hand experience that the NYPD is out of control. This is obviously not news to the hundreds of thousands of young men of color who are stopped and frisked by the cops every year, and it's always important to stress that the kind of suppression a political movement like Occupy faces is both quantitatively and categorically different than the oppression marginalized communities face. So the stories laid out below come with the caveat of “police brutality in New York isn't new, but it's crazy and maybe we can get this under control.”

In some ways what makes this lawsuit so extraordinary is the inclusion of four city council members,  one of whom was beaten bloody and arrested by the police. Ydanis Rodriguez, the lead plaintiff in the case, was prevented from witnessing the eviction of Liberty Square by the NYPD on November 15, 2011. Rodriquez represents the 10th Council District in Manhattan and on the night of the raid he went to Liberty Square to exercise his right to observe police actions as granted to him by the council charter. By the end of the night Rodriguez was bloodied and in police custody, thereby rendering him incapable of fulfilling his duty to his constituents to act as a monitor.

More outrageous still is what the department did as damage control. When Time magazine picked up the story, it posted a photo of Rodriguez on the ground getting arrested. The complaint alleges that police officials contacted Time, requesting the dramatic photo be removed. Several hours later the story was accompanied by a photograph from an unrelated event showing Rodriguez speaking pleasantly with officers. Until this complaint was filed and  reported on, this incident remained unknown.

Suppression of the Press 

The NYPD's contempt for the press has been well  documented. Ray Kelly's widely circulated  memo telling his officers to allow the press to do their job has been uniformly ignored, which shows either Kelly's lack of control over his forces, or, more likely, the bad-faith in which it was written and distributed. From arresting so-called mainstream journalists like plaintiff Stephanie Keith, to  harassing freelance photographers, to preventing the press from witnessing police  misconduct, to  manhandling reporters and their crews, to threatening to  confiscate press badges, to (in my case) getting arrested for  not having press credentials, it's fair to say the NYPD considers the First Amendment more of a friendly suggestion than a constitutional right.

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