A judge considering the merits of dozens of lawsuits against the city for 1,800 arrests during the 2004 Republican National Convention was critical of some of the actions of police as he listened to arguments Thursday from lawyers for those arrested and the city.
U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan seemed particularly disappointed by some of the actions he saw police take on videotapes he reviewed prior to several hours of arguments in a packed Manhattan courtroom. He questioned whether police did enough to separate people who were doing something illegal like blocking traffic from bystanders or people walking to work, a process he called "separating the dolphins from the tuna."
He said police allowed one sidewalk march by protesters in downtown Manhattan to proceed until a police official who "loses his head" suddenly stopped the march after less than a block, trapping the protesters with anyone else on the block and setting off mass arrests.
"I mean the rest of the cops looked utterly confused as to why" the police official "is going nuts," Sullivan said.
"You disagree with that?" the judge asked city attorney Peter Farrell. "If you are going to insist that it was magnificent police work the whole way, I just think you are going to run up against facts that are difficult to square."
Sullivan questioned Farrell repeatedly as to whether the city's police department tried hard enough to separate people violating the law from people on the street doing other things. The New York Civil Liberties Union contends police randomly arrested hundreds of people on at least two occasions by rounding up everybody in a city block.
Farrell defended the city, saying 800,000 people demonstrated during the convention and only 1,800 were arrested.
The judge questioned whether the police department believed it had the right to arrest all 500 people on a city block if it believes 200 of them are part of a cohesive unit doing something illegal.
"The police took reasonable steps ... to make sure they only had individuals involved in illegal conduct," Farrell said. "The police department's efforts to make sure they only arrested those engaged in illegal activity were successful."
The judge, though, said he saw little evidence of those steps in the record.
The NYCLU has asked the judge to find police didn't have probable cause to make mass arrests during the convention, at which President George W. Bush was nominated for another term. The city has asked the judge to throw out the lawsuits because police have qualified immunity.
Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the NYCLU, told Sullivan that the legal arguments represented "a moment that has been a long time coming" about constitutional issues that were no less important because of the passage of time. He said the city sent a "very loud and destructive message" by sweeping up so many innocent people in large-scale arrests, the most ever at a national political convention.
Sullivan was critical as well of some of the NYCLU arguments, noting the difficulty that police had keeping streets and sidewalks moving in a city where someone in need of an ambulance could not be helped if protesters shut down traffic. "Overall, the city did a good job. Nothing blew up," he noted.
The judge did not immediately rule.
The NYCLU has said documents already in evidence prove its claims that deliberate police policy decisions led to long detentions of thousands of protesters arrested for minor offenses.
The convention was policed by as many as 10,000 officers from the 36,500-member department, the nation's largest. They were assigned to protect the city from terrorism threats and to cope with tens of thousands of demonstrators.