Occupy Wall Street is still proving expensive for the city of New York, who keep having pay out large sums of money to Occupy protesters who were over-enthusiastically arrested by the NYPD. In April 2013, the city paid $365,000 to settle claims over the destruction of the OWS library, and civil rights attorney Wylie Stecklow of Stecklow Cohen & Thompson says he’s settled six or seven other Occupiers’ claims for unlawful arrests. The latest came just yesterday, when the city agreed to pay $55,000 in the case of Josh Boss, who was livestreaming a December 2011 march when he was thrown to the ground and kneed by Chief Thomas Purtell, then the commanding officer of the Manhattan South Patrol Division, which oversees all marches and protests in the city.
“Purtell is the most senior officer we’ve ever seen in a physical unlawful arrest,” Stecklow tells the Voice. “He got hands on.”
Boss was filming the march on the evening of December 17, 2011. As the marchers crossed the street, so did he, camera in hand. Footage of the incident shows that he was in a crosswalk when Purtell came running at him, flung him to the ground, and put his knee on Boss’s chest. “Kick his ass, Tom!” another officer can be heard saying in the background.
The video shows Boss lying motionless for the duration of the arrest. Nontheless, Purtell tells him, “Don’t resist.”
“I’m not resisting anything! I was trying to cross the street.” Boss replies. And then, a moment later, “Is that knee on my face really necessary, officer?”
“Oh, I kinda think it is,” Purtell replies.
Stecklow’s firm released two video segments showing the arrest from various angles:
Boss was cuffed with two pairs of plastic ziptie handcuffs. His attorneys say his backpack, filled with video equipment, rested heavily on the double cuffs, cutting off his circulation. (Audio from the video segments shows that after he was arrested, another officer eventually loosened his cuffs, remarking, “His hands are turning blue.”) He was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and held for five hours. The charges were eventually dropped, and he sued the NYPD for false arrest, excessive force, and nerve damage to his wrists.
Purtell has denied making an overly brutal arrest. The video released by Stecklow shows a later interview with the officer, evidently conducted by someone with the law firm. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. He was not struck in the face,” Purtell says. “He was not injured. What’s perceived on the video is not what happened.”
Stecklow says that the arrest was disturbing not just for its brutality, but because of the presence of at least 20 younger officers around Purtell: “This is what we’ve seen time and time again. They’re training the junior officers. What are they learning? When a guy is laying prone on the floor, yell, ‘Stop resisting!’ so you have reason to use force and make a bad arrest.”
The attorney adds that these settlements are “unfortunate,” in that they come out of taxpayer money. “It falls on all of us taxpayers instead of the individual officers. I’m not happy about that,” he says. “I believe that if even ten percent of the payout money came out of the police pension fund, there’d be a sharp decline in the number of these type of incidents.” The same would be true, he adds, if protesters were allowed to sue the officers who witnessed their unlawful or brutal arrests but did not intervene.
“The majority of police officers are good,” Stecklow says. “They want to help. And if we put pressure on the majority to intervene, again, we can start to reduce these kinds of incidents.”
Purtell was once demoted in 2003, after he led a mistaken raid on a woman’s apartment. The woman, 57-year-old Alberta Spruill, died after a concussion grenade was thrown into her home by police. According to a New York Times report, the Chief Medical Examiner ruled that Spruill “died from the stress and fear caused by the detonation of the concussion grenade and from being handcuffed.”
Although Purtell was reassigned to the Housing Bureau for a time, he worked his way up to Manhattan South, and has received two promotions since the Josh Boss arrest. He’s now head of the NYPD’s Organized Crime Control Bureau. A Times story from February claims that he’s being considered for yet another promotion, to replace either the current chief of detectives or the head of the Internal Affairs Bureau.