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2006-05-17

FBI Launches Criminal Civil Rights Investigation of NYPD Over RNC Protests

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Democracy Now has learned the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation of the New York Police Department over the NYPD’s treatment of protesters during the Republican National Convention. During the week of the 2004 convention, police arrested some 1800 protesters — more than at any previous political convention in the country’s history. [includes rush transcript]

Democracy Now has learned the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation of the New York Police Department over the NYPD"s treatment of protesters during the Republican National Convention. Last week the FBI sent the New York Civil Liberties Union a letter asking the group for assistance in what it described as a "pending criminal civil rights investigation into the New York City Police Department’s arrest of certain individuals in connection with their protest activity at the Republican National Convention in August of 2004." The letter went on to state "We are attempting to determine if any police officers" conduct violated federal civil rights statutes."

During the week of the 2004 convention, police arrested some 1800 protesters — more than at any previous political convention in the country’s history. It is unclear as to the extent of the Justice Department"s criminal investigation of the NYPD, but the FBI appears to be focusing on the arrest of Dennis Kyne, a Gulf War veteran turned anti-war activist. Kyne was arrested on the steps of the New York Public Library on multiple charges including inciting a riot. His case went to trial but it was dismissed after his legal team presented videotaped evidence that proved the police lied to the court. As part of the criminal investigation, the FBI is seeking to interview other protesters whose constitutional rights have been violated by the police.

The police department has acknowledged it has opened its own investigation into the arrest of Kyne and is cooperating with the FBI. The announcement of the FBI investigation of the NYPD comes just week after the city’s own Civilian Complaint Review Board issued a report criticizing the actions of two deputy police chiefs during the convention. We are joined now in our Firehouse studio by attorney Gideon Oliver who is representing Dennis Kyne and other protesters arrested during the convention.

  • Gideon Oliver , attorney for Dennis Kyne and other protesters arrested during the convention.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now in our Firehouse studio by attorney Gideon Oliver. He’s representing Dennis Kyne and other protesters arrested during the convention. Welcome to Democracy Now!

GIDEON OLIVER: Good morning. Thanks so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. So, the Bush administration Justice Department is launching an investigation into the New York Police Department’s activities during the Republican Convention. Can you explain how you found this out and what you think?

GIDEON OLIVER: Certainly. Well, the first I heard of this — the first I heard of an FBI investigation was yesterday, late yesterday afternoon, actually, although I understood that as a result of a letter that John Conyers and several other House Judiciary members sent to Attorney General Gonzales last year, that the Department of Justice would be launching some kind of investigation. So, this is the first I’ve heard that something is actually going on, so it was really only yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened to your client, to Dennis Kyne.

GIDEON OLIVER: Dennis, on August 31, 2004, went to the steps of the New York Public Library at around 6:00 p.m., was there for a few minutes before police began — before a large number of NYPD officers began searching people’s backpacks and arresting people, which caused many of the folks who were at the library to get upset and to chant and do other entirely peaceful things, as a result of which the police officers gave dispersal orders. And Dennis was arrested as he was walking away and leaving and yelling at the police. And as he was being placed under arrest, when he was on his knees with his hands behind his back, the then Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters, the top lawyer for the Police Department, came over to him and pointed to him and said, "This one is discon and resisting."

AMY GOODMAN: Discon?

GIDEON OLIVER: Disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

AMY GOODMAN: And who was the officer?

GIDEON OLIVER: The deputy then, it was Stephen Hammerman, was then — he’s no longer the Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters. Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters Hammerman then walked over to a Legal Bureau lieutenant who was nearby and said, "We’ve got one of the troublemakers from Pataki’s the other night," referring to Dennis. So it was very eerie, because at least he knew who Dennis was from a protest several days before and referred to him as a troublemaker, was pleased he had been arrested and ordered that he be charged with something he was absolutely not doing, which was resisting arrest.

AMY GOODMAN: You had this on film?

GIDEON OLIVER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: This is what broke this case?

GIDEON OLIVER: Well, what happened is that the District Attorney, based on Officer Matthew Wohl’s sworn accusatory instrument in Dennis’s case, prosecuted him. It was the first jury trial to result from the RNC. And Officer Wohl testified that he observed Dennis resisting arrest by kicking and screaming like a little child. When asked how he was moving around, he said, "Well, his heart was moving, his chest was moving."

AMY GOODMAN: His heart was moving?

GIDEON OLIVER: Yes. And after Officer Wohl testified, we turned over some videotape to the District Attorney one evening, and then the next morning they sort of pulled us into the hallway and said, "Why didn’t you show this to us earlier?" They obviously understood very quickly that the officer hadn’t told the truth, and, you know, we said, "Well, why didn’t he tell the truth? Why didn’t you dismiss the case?"

AMY GOODMAN: So, this Officer Wohl is being investigated by the FBI?

GIDEON OLIVER: Well, it appears so. I know, as a matter of fact —

AMY GOODMAN: They name him in the letter that we saw.

GIDEON OLIVER: Yes. They spell his name wrong, but yes, they do name him.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you spell his name?

GIDEON OLIVER: It’s "W-o-h-l" and they spell it "W-h-o-l." Perhaps a minor detail, but it’s a very, very long time — I mean, Dennis’s trial was in December of 2004, so this is a real long time to have waited to investigate what is really a flagrant, I think, example of what was a much larger problem during the RNC, which is to say the Police Department had a policy of clearing the streets and then kind of sorting everything out in criminal court, in terms of making it sound as though the arrests were legitimate later, which is an enormous problem that’s frankly ongoing in terms of the Police Department’s policing of protest activities, certainly.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Gideon Oliver, attorney representing Dennis Kyne, arrested at the Republican National Convention, and others. These cases leading to the Justice Department, the FBI sending a letter to the New York Civil Liberties Union, saying they’re investigating the Police Department over criminal civil rights violations? Criminal violations. Can you describe other cases that you know about? We have some video, and you know some of that video.

GIDEON OLIVER: Certainly. Well, during the RNC, five was the golden number. That is to say, arresting officers were to arrest, the Police Department says, up to five individuals in a mass arrest situation, and in fact, Officer Wohl swore that he arrested five individuals that day at the library. And as it turns out, we have video of the arrests of all five of those individuals, and Officer Wohl doesn’t appear anywhere near them at any time. It appears that he was at the back of a prisoner transport vehicle.

And so, the first arrest that occurred at the library that day were of two French Canadian men and a woman from Portland, who were arrested for attempting to hang a banner. They didn’t even hang it. They just held it up. A police captain came up to them and said, "You can’t hang a sign on Parks Department property. You can hold it, but you can’t hang it." And then, within four or five seconds, a number of other captains and officers swept in and simply arrested them, which seemed to, you know, just flabbergast the crowd, the people who were there.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to show for our radio listeners some of the videotape on our website at democracynow.org. Now, the John Conyers letter to the Justice Department pointed out that 91% of the protesters arrested had their charges dropped. 91% had their charges dropped or were found to be not guilty after trial, and that about 400 protesters were let off the hook after video evidence emerged proving that the protesters had been wrongly accused as a result of police perjury, the tampering of evidence or other deceptions. That’s quite astounding.

GIDEON OLIVER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: 91%.

GIDEON OLIVER: Absolutely. And it’s also, I think, important to note that what we’re talking about in terms of the violations of law or alleged violations of law we’re talking about, we’re talking about things like disorderly conduct or parading without a permit, and when a police officer swears out an accusatory instrument that initiates a criminal proceeding, it’s a misdemeanor to tell a lie in a document like that. And many, many of the police officers who swore out these instruments during the convention simply did not tell the truth. It’s a huge, huge problem. So I’m very interested to see what comes of this FBI investigation. If it’s, you know, just did Officer Matthew Wohl tell a lie when he was on the stand in Dennis’s case? That’s open and shut. But if it’s how could this have been such a widespread practice, that would be a very interesting question to have a more definitive answer to.

AMY GOODMAN: And on Democracy Now!, we showed the videotape that was doctored by the Police Department, that was proved in court when the longer video was brought out that showed precisely the opposite of what they supposedly said happened.

GIDEON OLIVER: I believe that was in connection with Alexander Dunlop’s case. He was arrested on August 27, allegedly in connection with the Critical Mass bike ride. It turned out he had lived in the neighborhood and was going to get some sushi, and he was a guy with a bike, and they were arresting people with bikes. And in connection with his case, the District Attorney’s office turned over one videotape that did not show him acting, you know, completely reasonably and trying to figure out how to get out of the police trap, and Eileen Clancy from I-Witness video discovered that the video was incomplete, comparing it to another copy that had been turned over in another case. It’s extremely troubling. These are extremely troubling practices.

AMY GOODMAN: Does this go to an issue of conspiracy?

GIDEON OLIVER: Well, I think it depends what you mean by "conspiracy." I think certainly at this point the fact that Commissioner Kelly and Paul Browne are so adamant about defending all of the practices of the Police Department in connection with the convention, despite really overwhelming evidence that there were serious problems, certainly points toward premeditation and post hoc rationalization, so I would certainly call it a conspiracy, at least in the technical legal sense.

AMY GOODMAN: So 1,800 people arrested, largest in any convention in the history of conventions. Over 1,600 of them, these cases were dropped or shown in trial, acquitted, etc. We want to thank you very much for being with us, Gideon Oliver, attorney representing protesters arrested at the Republican National Convention. We’ll certainly continue to follow the story, and we’ll also link to the stories we covered at the Republican Convention, including Alex Dunlop__ and the video we showed there of the man who went out to buy sushi and was arrested for protesting.

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