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The Wall Street Journal recently reported that New York City has distanced itself from the high-ranking police official accused of gratuitously pepper-spraying a group of young female Occupy Wall Street protesters at a demonstration near Union Square last September.
YouTube videos of the incident that went viral clearly showed the women were penned inside orange police netting when the officer strolled by and sneakily spritzed them with the noxious spray, causing them to fall to their knees, crying in agony.
The city has taken the unusual step of declining to defend the officer, Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, in a civil lawsuit over the incident filed by two of the women, who charge the officer pepper-sprayed them “for no legal reason.” Two additional protesters have also filed suit.
According to the Journal, the decision means Bologna — the former commanding officer of Lower Manhattan’s First Precinct — could be personally liable for financial damages arising from the lawsuits.
The Captains Endowment Association is now covering the cost of Bologna’s defense. According to his defense, Bologna was only acting in his capacity as a police officer and didn’t actually mean to spray the women. He claimed he was pepper-spraying in the general area because the situation was getting chaotic and because some men were allegedly trying to sneak in under the netting.
However, the videos are concrete visual evidence of what happened — and many would see intent behind Bologna’s walk-by spraying. In fact, the videos are what apparently dissuaded the city from defending Bologna.
Four weeks after the Sept. 24 incident, which occurred during an unpermitted march that ended in dozens of arrests, an internal investigation found Bologna in violation of New York Police Department guidelines. He was given a departmental punishment and docked 10 vacation days.
Bologna has reportedly accepted the slap on the wrist rather than go through a departmental trial.
Ironically, it was this very pepper-spraying incident that put the fledgling O.W.S. movement on the map — so O.W.S. can thank Bologna for that.
We think the city has taken the right step by deciding not to defend him. While the city needs to back its men in blue, Bologna’s actions were outside the scope of appropriate police behavior.
This is also an important message for the city to send to its police officers: If you act outside of the parameters of your duties, the city will not indemnify you. This is an important check on police misconduct and brutality.
While Bologna will undoubtedly argue that the context is important and not fully visible in the YouTube videos of the incident, the city also needs to recognize the context of people trying to express their First Amendment rights of freedom of expression and association, and use maximum restraint in these situations. Police are trained to keep their cool in these instances, even when they are being provoked by protesters, as in this case. Bologna’s action, as captured on the videos, was clearly out of line.
What’s more, his act casts a very negative light on the N.Y.P.D. — another reason the city is right not to defend him.
On the other hand, Bologna’s penalty of being stripped of 10 vacation days is a joke. As a high-ranking commanding officer, he should be held to a higher standard than most on the force. Pepper-spraying innocuous protesters was not befitting for someone of his rank, sent a terrible message to the world and was bad P.R. for our Police Department; the punishment should reflect that.
As the protesters say, “The whole world is watching!” Videos and YouTube now scrupulously document everyone’s actions. The city relied on the footage and made the right decision in this case — though, again, we feel the penalty was too lenient.