Read the full complaint here.
In the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, protests against police violence toward people of color erupted across the country and across the world, including in New York City.
On May 30, 2020, Plaintiff Andrew Smith joined thousands of people in Brooklyn peacefully protesting the long and sustained history of police violence against people of color in the City and across the country. That day, Defendant Michael Sher, an NYPD officer who was policing the protests, confronted Mr. Smith, forcibly snatched off Mr. Smith’s facemask, and deployed pepper spray directly into his face. Defendant Sher assaulted Mr. Smith without provocation or warning as Mr. Smith stood among other demonstrators with his hands raised high to signal that he was protesting peacefully. Defendant Sher assaulted Mr. Smith, a young Black man, but chose not to assault nearby white protesters who, like Mr. Smith, were standing with their hands raised. In addition to causing Mr. Smith to suffer great physical pain and discomfort, this assault loomed large over his life for months as video of the assault went viral and officers wearing the same uniform as Defendant Sher patrolled Mr. Smith’s community in Brooklyn.
Mr. Smith is just one of scores of peaceful protesters who were met by unwarranted, excessive uses of force by NYPD officers during these protests. Since the protests began, several documented instances of NYPD officers’ unwarranted uses of pepper spray on protesters have come to light. Moreover, NYPD officers were recorded pushing and charging Floyd-Taylor protesters without provocation or justification and arresting protesters en masse for nonviolently exercising their First Amendment right to challenge the police violence to which they were subjected.
On June 2, 2021, the Initiative for a Just Society, along with co-counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), Massena Law, P.C., and The Vessup Law Firm, sued the City of New York, the New York Police Department (NYPD), Bill DeBlasio (official and personal capacities), Police Commissioner of New York City Dermot Francis Shea, Michael Sher and John Does 1-10 on behalf of Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith was subjected to, among other things, the excessive use of force, unlawful search and seizure, civil assault and battery, interference with his right to free speech, racial discrimination, and constitutionally deficient supervision and training of NYPD employees. Mr. Smith seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, an award of costs and attorney’s fees, equitable and injunctive relief, and such other and further relief as the Court deems just and proper. Mr. Smith seeks relief for violations of his rights secured by the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and for his rights secured by the laws of the State of New York and City of New York.
The City has long suffered from a disturbing, well-documented, and enduring legacy of police violence against peaceful protesters. Importantly, for over a decade before the Floyd-Taylor protests erupted, the City was already aware of the NYPD’s long practice of using unconstitutionally excessive force against peaceful protesters. But the City did not act to end this unlawful, repressive, and violent practice before or during the Floyd-Taylor protests, nor did the City discipline the NYPD officers who carried out this unlawful practice. Instead, City officials praised the NYPD’s response to the protests as images of beaten and bloodied demonstrators flashed across television screens and spread through social media. The City’s failures have resulted in a host of lawsuits arising out of its unconstitutional response to the Floyd-Taylor protests, as well as several reports impugning the City’s response, including a report by the City’s inspector general that details the City’s unduly repressive approach to policing peaceful protesters, which precipitated illegal police violence during the protests.
Defendant Sher’s racially motivated assault on Mr. Smith, while unjustified and unlawful, was consistent with the NYPD’s longstanding violent and repressive policies and practices at the time of the Floyd-Taylor protests. Mr. Smith’s claims are one of several attempts to obtain an acknowledgment of, and recompense for, the harm wrought by the racially motivated, unjustified police violence that Mr. Smith and countless other protesters decried in the historic spring and summer of 2020.