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Cyclist Sues NYPD for Brutality After Excessive Force Takedown Near Williamsburg Bridge

This is near where Luke Ohlson claims he was brutally arrested by NYPD officers last year. His suit has just been filed. Photo: Google

Cops abused a Brooklyn cyclist with excessive force after the rider briefly pedaled the wrong way in a bike lane near the Williamsburg Bridge, causing serious injuries that linger to this day, the cyclist said in a bombshell police brutality suit filed last week in federal court.

Luke Ohlson in a self portrait.
Luke Ohlson in a self portrait.
Luke Ohlson in a self portrait.

Luke Ohlson, a documentary filmmaker and regular cyclist, said he was riding a Citi Bike in the protected bike lane on South Fifth Street between Driggs and Bedford avenues in the early evening of April 16, 2019, when Officer Michael Ignatz sprung out from between two parked cars and shouted at Ohlson to stop, which he did.

But then, Ignatz, "with no reasonable law enforcement justification," grabbed Ohlson's left arm and hand "and violently twisted them and pinned them behind [his] back," according to the filing, which seeks unspecified "compensatory and punitive" damages.

Several other officers approached, and Ohlson started filming the scene, apparently angering the officers, one of whom, "wrenched [Ohlon's] phone out of [his] left hand by violently twisting [his] wrist, causing [Ohlson] to drop the phone," the lawsuit alleges. Ohlson was then rear-handcuffed "with excessive and punitive tightness" at least two officers, whose names remain unknown to Ohlson (seven officers are named in the suit; two more are John Does).

"None of the force used upon [Ohlson] was in any way necessary or justified by any legitimate law enforcement purpose, as [he] had been cooperative with all of the officers and had not resisted them in any way," the court papers state.

Ohlson said the takedown left him with a diagnosed "sprain to his left wrist" plus "a significant amount of pain and tingling, and difficulty feeling sensation, to his left pointer finger and thumb." His court papers say Ohlson "continues to have difficulty straightening his thumb to the present day." (Read the full filing here.)

Ohlson's civil rights suit makes 14 charges, including that cops violated his First Amendment rights to videotape his arrest; violated his rights under the Fourth and 14th amendments; violated his civil rights as a New Yorker because of the city's "failing to properly train, screen, supervise, or discipline employees and police officers"; committed assault and battery; falsely imprisoned and arrested him; committed negligence; abused the process; committed basic tort for "injury, pain and suffering, emotional distress, costs and expenses"; and committed "malicious prosecution." The last complaint stems from  the resisting arrest and obstructing governmental operations charges that were added to the three summonses for riding the wrong-way in the protected bike lane — all of which were dismissed by a judge on Dec. 3, 2019.

Ohlson's lawyer, Jeffrey Rothman, said the suit was necessary to hold the city of New York accountable for the actions of its NYPD officers.

"My focus, as a civil rights lawyer, is that the police lied about what they did in retaliation to being filmed," Rothman told Streetsblog. "This is a longstanding problem with the NYPD — they don't like to be filmed. And they retaliate and brutalize people when they are filmed. That's the reason for the trumped-up charges here. They could have written a summons, but instead, they got insulted that they were being filmed so they added on two misdemeanor counts that carry significant jail time and could lead to a criminal record that could follow this person his whole life — and they perjure themselves to do it. Perjury by police officers in criminal court documents is just de rigeur and it erodes the credibility of the NYPD."

Streetsblog reached out to the NYPD for comment on some of the specific allegations raised in Ohlson's suit. Here is the full response we got back from Sgt. Edward Riley: "The NYPD will decline comment on pending litigation."

If it won't comment, the NYPD should certainly consider how allegations of police brutality rend society's fabric and the toll such allegations take on taxpayers.

Tort claims against NYPD officers comprise 36 percent of the total overall cost of resolved tort claims in fiscal year 2019, according to City Comptroller Scott Stringer in his annual claims report. Settlements made by the city on behalf of the NYPD cost taxpayers $220 million in fiscal year 2019, the vast majority coming from allegations of police misconduct or civil rights violations.

Since 2010, settlements against the NYPD have cost taxpayers $2.15 billion (see chart):

Chart: NYC Comptroller
Chart: NYC Comptroller
Chart: NYC Comptroller

It's not the first time Officer Michael Ignatz has been in the news for his zealous — or over-zealous — enforcement actions against cyclists. In 2015, the now-defunct DNA Info revealed that Ignatz was in the top three cops for writing summonses against cyclists.

"Maybe he thinks that's his ticket to a promotion or maybe he gets overtime, I don't know," said Rothman. "But part of the problem is they go after people in a way that is not appropriate. If you are going to give someone a summons, OK, give him a summons, but you don't have to commit brutality."

Ignatz shows up in the ProPublica database of police brutality for three allegations of brutality, one substantiated. That 2007 allegation stemmed from an abuse of authority claim against Ignatz by a 26-year-old Black man.

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