Free Workshops for Immigrants to Self-Protect Against ICE, NYPD

Lawsuits charging police abuse have increased. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

The recent executive orders on immigration issued by the Trump administration have generated much fear among the population, but activists say that we must gather our courage to avoid becoming paralyzed as individuals and to demand respect for the rights of our community.

One way to empower ourselves is to know the rights we have as citizens when the time comes to deal with the authorities, whether it is the police, immigration agents (ICE), district attorneys, judges… No one has a right to intimidate or abuse us.

The Participatory Defense Initiative offers free workshops in Sunset Park every other Thursday in which people learn to interact with the authorities and are able to ask questions and have legal consultations in a safe and confidential manner. The initiative is a joint effort of well-known organizations El Grito de Sunset Park and Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), which provide legal services to low-income people in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.

In addition to attending to the increasing demand for legal consultation on immigration, (…) the workshops will serve people who have had bad encounters with the police. Activists say that there is an upward trend of civilians ending up in a fight or being beaten up, and that the victims do not know how to defend themselves. Many of them are facing felony charges for assaulting an officer. In the absence of evidence, they are offered an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD), which prevents them from filing any potential lawsuits for abuse of authority.

An analysis done by the Legal Aid Society classified lawsuits filed against the NYPD between June 2015 and May 2016 by demographic factors, and found that the racial profile of the plaintiffs is 82 percent Black or African-American, 15 percent Hispanic or Latino, 2 percent white and 2 percent Asian. By collecting information from different databases, the study found that 10 of the police precincts with the highest numbers of abuse of authority complaints are located in Brooklyn.

Thirty-three percent of the lawsuits relate to encounters between civilians and the police occurring on the street; 47 percent claim use of excessive force, with 64 percent of the cases requiring hospitalization.

Suing the authorities is not easy. It requires courage, patience, education and evidence.

Attorney Andrea Nieves, with BDS, explained that workshop participants will receive training to learn how to build their defense if they have a pending case, as well as to investigate and lead proper investigations, collect evident and build a support network and a defense campaign involving the community.

El Grito de Sunset Park has promoted documenting the behavior of the police through video and photography. They know that officers at the 72nd Precinct will soon be wearing body cameras, and they expect that this will improve their relationship with the community. “We are not anti-police; we are pro-community,” co-founder of the organization Dennis Flores pointed out.

Victim or aggressor?

“Raúl González” is the assumed name of a 36-year-old Hispanic man who attended one of the Participatory Defense Initiative workshops for the first time in January. He told El Diario about the nightmare he endured for nearly a whole year as he faced a 15-year prison sentence for assaulting a police officer, which he said he did not commit.

It all started on the night of Jan. 30, 2016 as he was driving in Manhattan. A police officer stopped by his side, screaming obscenities at him. Because “Raúl” did not understand what was happening, he pulled over, and the police officer intercepted him.

What happened next is a violent and blurry cloud. “Raúl” says that Officer Daniel O’Mahoney, from the NYPD’s 6th Precinct, tried to inspect his car without a warrant and then started to beat him up. “When I was able to get out of the car, the officer continued hitting me; I never hit him back, I just asked him to stop hitting me. He knocked me down to the ground and put his knee on my neck and hurt me badly, because my arms are short and he had a hard time handcuffing me,” said “Raúl.”

Things got worse. He says that the officer called the station to say that he had captured a drunk, violent suspect who had assaulted him. Badly beat up, the man of Puerto Rican descent was taken to the precinct, but it was not until 4 a.m. when he was allowed to go to Bellevue Hospital to be treated for an asthma attack.

“Doctors gave me a tranquilizer and albuterol for the asthma attack, but they returned me to the precinct. Then they accused me of having assaulted a police officer. They initially gave me a $15,000 bond, but my family was able to pay $2,500 so I could get out,” he added.

“Raúl” lives on Staten Island, and has suffered for something he did not do. He has lost three jobs, he is in debt, and he is caring for his parents, who both have cancer. Fortunately, his girlfriend has tirelessly supported him and, thanks to a mutual friend, he was able to attend the legal counseling workshop a week before the trial against him began.

He presented his case there, and the activists helped him write letters to request a new attorney, which the judge overruled.

Still, before the trial, his attorney showed him a video of the moment when the police stopped him: “The young man stopped even though the officer hit his door aggressively with his baton. When the young man sped away, the officer fell to the ground, and that is why he was charged with assault against the officer. The young man did not think that the officer had fallen,” said Flores.

He added that there is another video of the moment when the officer pulls the man out of the car by force.

“The young man did not offer resistance.” When the district attorney and the judge noticed that the young man is a veteran with no history of arrests, they gave him “a break” by offering him an ACD, which means that if he is not arrested again in the next year, the incident will be erased from his record. He will also have to perform 200 hours of community service and be on probation for three years.

“He brought support letters from friends who are police officers, which the judge took into consideration, saying that the young man could not have done this on purpose. He was facing 15 years for assaulting a police officer and, with our help, he will no longer have to go to jail. He is not thinking about suing the police department either, and he is grateful that he will not have to go to prison,” added Flores.

El Diario tried to obtain Office O’Mahoney’s version, but both the 6th Precinct and the Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information.

The NYPD is sued 4,000 times per year, mostly in state courts.

Increase in lawsuits

The dramatic spike in litigation cost the city $216 million in reparations in 2014 alone. This increase in lawsuits marks a trend contrary to the one noted by the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, which reported that the number of complaints went down from 7,663 in 2006 to 4,461 in 2015, which may suggest that there is a growing number of citizens frustrated about the redress process available to them who may be resorting to suing the police.

Source: “Open Data Projects Are Fueling the Fight against Police Misconduct,”

Participatory Defense Initiative Workshop

Sessions are open to the public but confidential in order to guarantee the safety and integrity of the people seeking assistance. Before each session, a list of names and each person’s reason for visiting is made to establish priorities. (…)

For more information, contact:
(347) 504-1857

The workshops are modeled after the initiative created six years ago by the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP) in San Jose, California. In fact, they are not primarily intended to offer “legal clinics,” as they are not meant to “build a case” for a lawyer, but to empower the community and help families understand what is happening so they are able to take action.

“When a family comes to our meetings for the first time, we tell them that, even though the system is trying to give their loved one some ‘service time’ – that is, time in jail and absent – they can turn ‘served time’ into ‘saved time.’ By participating, they are able to bring their loved one home,” says the ACJP.

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