In recent months, city and state leaders have criticized the police department’s response to the protests following Mr 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 Detective 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Harper used this 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.
Remy Green, a New York-based civil rights attorney, said new state law designed to make frivolous, word-based prosecutions more difficult to bring would most likely apply to the detective’s trial. The law could force Detective Cheung to pay Mr. Harper’s legal fees.
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, Detective Cheung’s Union published a video on Twitter another of his 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.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed to the research.