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The New York Times

Why this NYPD detective is chasing a protester

NEW YORK – When protests against racism and police brutality took to the streets of New York last summer, police confronted protesters with tactics so aggressive and at times violent that a remorseful Mayor Bill de Blasio then issued a public apology. But a year after George Floyd’s murder, police across the country say they were taunted and insulted during protests that vilified them. Today, a New York police union is testing an unusual new tactic to retaliate against protesters: sue them. On the same day last week de Blasio released new guidelines on how police would respond to protests, New York Police Detective Vincent Cheung announced he was suing a protester who had been filmed hurling racist and anti-Asian slurs. against him during a demonstration in March. Sign up for The Morning newsletter for The New York Times Police in New York and across the country have occasionally taken legal action against people who attack and physically injure them. But a lawsuit brought by an officer for words used during a protest – even hateful ones – raises thorny questions about freedom of expression, which is often protected even in its most vitriolic form. Lawyers who are watching the police action closely said they could not recall such a lawsuit – seeking damages from a protester for the language used at a protest – and added that even if the chase was completely unsuccessful, it could still represent a new avenue for police to confront protesters. A lawyer representing Cheung said police believe the civil court is “their only recourse.” “Many officers have stated that they would not hesitate to seek this remedy, not with the expectation of a financial windfall, but, hopefully, as a deterrent against such uncivilized and dangerous behavior,” lawyer James M. Moschella said. In a video of the confrontation released by police, protester Terrell Harper stood a few feet from Cheung’s face as he cursed him, punctuating his comments with racist stereotypes mocking Cheung, who is a Chinese American. At the time, Cheung made no move to apprehend Harper, who is Black. The protest, on a cold March evening in downtown Manhattan, continued. Harper said he returned home to Asbury Park, New Jersey, after the protest, which he said was a weekly protest for transgender rights and “in solidarity with ending Asian hatred.” Five days later, eight people were killed in an Atlanta shooting, including six of Asian origin, accelerating already growing concerns about anti-Asian hatred. A week later, police released the Harper video. At last week’s press conference at the headquarters of his union, the Detectives Endowment Association, Cheung said he had been the victim of verbal abuse many times before, but was surprised that at a protest for racial justice and equality, Harper did what he called “an anti-Asian scolding for over 15 minutes.” “This kind of hatred directed at myself as an Asian American is just disgusting,” he said. The lawsuit said Cheung suffered from severe emotional distress and was seriously and permanently and seriously injured by Harper’s conduct, which the report said rendered him unable to perform his usual duties and had forced him to see a doctor. He asked the court to compel Harper to pay unspecified damages. In interviews, Harper, 39, apologized for what he admitted to be racist comments. He said the video was taken out of context and that he typically used racist remarks as part of a larger explanatory monologue to demonstrate what racism looks and feels like. “I have to change my method and I went out and I apologized,” he said. He said he had staged protests throughout the year and that the trial, in addition to specifically targeting him, was a way for police to stir up tensions between Asian and black communities in New York City. Megan Watson, a Korean-American organizer who has attended several marches with Harper, said she worked with him to organize a February march in solidarity with the Asian-American community against police brutality. She agreed the trial was a way to scapegoat a protest leader and deepen long-standing tensions between communities. She compared Harper’s monologues, which she had observed, to comedic roasts, but said she had never heard him use anti-Asian language before. She had told him about the video, however, she said. “He understands how it goes. He understands that there is work to be done, ”she said. The detective’s trial also said Harper spat in his face. Harper categorically denied this, saying he believed the police would have arrested him had he done so. When asked why he hadn’t arrested or otherwise hired Harper, Cheung replied that “now is not the right time”. Moschella argued that Harper’s insults would spark more violence against Asians and Asian Americans in New York City. “There is a direct link between hate speech and the violence that is caused to racial and ethnic groups in this city,” he said. “Words matter.” Eugene O’Donnell, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former police officer, predicted further prosecutions like Cheung’s, saying police were frustrated with the language the protesters threw at them, especially the rhetoric that targets the race and gender of police officers. . He added that even if a judge ruled against the detective, the trial showed “enormous potential for police unions.” In recent months, city and state leaders have criticized the police department’s response to the protests following Floyd’s murder. A city report released in December found that the department had “mismanaged” the protests. In January, the ministry was sued by the New York attorney general, who called in a monitor to oversee police handling of the protests. Richard Aborn, chairman of the New York Citizens Crime Commission, a nonprofit group that works to improve criminal justice practices, said Cheung’s trial spoke about the sense of political isolation police feel. He said it could represent a new way to hold protesters accountable. “Under the right circumstances, this might be an appropriate response to unnecessary harassment by a cop,” he said. Lawyers who study civil liberties have said the lawsuit may well have a chilling effect on speeches and protests. Alexander A. Reinert, professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School, said Harper’s speech was “reprehensible”, but added that even outrageous, hateful and discriminatory speech is not always achievable. He referred to a 2011 Supreme Court case which concluded that hate speech is protected if it relates to what the court called “matters of public interest.” But he said that even if Harper used that or other defenses in court, or if the detective’s trial was otherwise unsuccessful, the trial could have a chilling effect on people’s speech during the protests. The police themselves, in New York City and across the country, have long enjoyed broad protections from prosecution under a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity. But, at least in New York City, that could soon change. On Sunday, a law passed by New York City Council that would make it easier to prosecute officers became law. A day later, Cheung’s union posted a video on Twitter of another of its detectives approached by a 25-year-old man and hit on the head with a long white stick. The man was charged by police with assault and criminal possession of a weapon. The union said it was considering whether or not to prosecute. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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