Paul Chevingy, the first voice on police brutality, dies at 88


In 1964, Paul G. Chevigny left a conventional job at a Wall Street law firm to volunteer in the Freedom Summer of civil rights activism in Mississippi.

What he saw in the Deep South, where efforts to register black voters were met with violence, changed his life. He left corporate law and opened the Harlem Neighborhood Legal Assistance Project on West 135th Street.

In Mississippi and Harlem, Chevigny's eyes were opened to a level of police brutality that black residents of poor communities often experienced, but that many white Americans were unaware of.

In 1966 he began working for the New York Civil Liberties Union, where he became one of the country's leading experts on police abuse and a leading civil rights attorney, winning landmark cases restricting police interference with the rights of the First Amendment.

Mr. Chevigny, who wrote a seminal book on abusive policing, “Police Power”; who defended the Attica prison rioters and the Black Panthers; and who as a professor at New York University Law School founded one of the first human rights clinics at an American law school, died Monday at his Manhattan home. He was 88 years old.

His daughter Blue Sévigny confirmed the death.

“His greatest impact was recognizing and writing powerfully about the systemic existence of police abuse,” Burt Neuborne, former national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview. “He was the first of the wave of civil rights lawyers who saw that.”

In his seminal book “Police Power,” published in 1969, Chevigny wrote that “many incidents of use of force by police bear an unfortunate resemblance to assaults committed by private citizens.”Credit…Random Penguin House

In “Police Power,” published in 1969, Chevigny wrote that while most people probably thought police brutality was a deliberate act, “the truth is that many incidents of use of force by police officers bear a “unfortunate resemblance to attacks by police.” private citizens; “They are exalted reactions to a real or imaginary insult.” But, premeditated or not, he maintained, police brutality extended “the role of the police as an instrument of authority in society.”

Chevigny's 11 years at the New York Civil Liberties Union coincided with a fruitful era for advances in social justice, shaped by a liberal judiciary open to new readings of the Constitution and by civil rights, the rights of women and the anti-war movements, which profoundly shook society.

In addition to the heavy issue of police abuse, Chevigny found time in his career to file cases targeting restrictions on New York City nightlife, based on free speech arguments.

Colleagues described him as reminiscent of Columbo, the television detective played by Peter Falk: distracted and sometimes irritable, but much more astute than his attitude suggested.

“He was always shuffling around until he was standing on your throat,” Neuborne said. “When I was a very young lawyer, I went to see him argue a couple of cases. On the way to court he said: “I don't know what I'm going to do.” And then he would stand up and present this wonderfully brilliant argument.”

In 1971, Chevigny and other lawyers sued the New York City Police Department for its surveillance of political activity, a decades-long spying campaign that came to light during a trial of members of the Black Panther Party, which They were acquitted. The so-called Red Squad of the police had over the years accumulated files on masses of people who had attended protests against the Vietnam War, signed petitions, written articles or attended meetings. After more than a decade of litigation, the city signed a consent decree in 1985, known as the Handschu agreement, limiting police espionage and covert operations.

“Its general theme was: Who will protect the guardians? Who will take care of the people who take care of us? said Jethro M. Eisenstein, a lawyer who worked with Chevigny on the Handschu agreement, which is still in effect.

In 1977, in another important First Amendment case, Black v. Codd, Chevigny obtained a consent decree giving observers of police actions the right to take photographs, write down license plate numbers, and make comments without being harassed or arrested.

That year, Mr. Chevigny joined the faculty at New York University School of Law, where he became a full professor in 1981. He ran a legal clinic on human rights, in which students represented real clients .

Along with his wife, Bell Gale Chevigny, a literature professor at the State University of New York at Purchase, Chevigny expanded his study of police violence to third world cities. The couple co-authored two reports for the human rights group Americas Watch: “Police Abuses in Brazil” (1987) and “Police Violence in Argentina” (1991).

In 1995, Chevigny published a second influential book, “On the Edge of the Knife,” an ambitious study of police violence in six cities in the Americas.

Chevigny's “On the Edge of the Knife” was an ambitious study of police violence in six cities in the Americas.Credit…The new press

“I felt like I had a kind of mission with the police problem,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1988. “It seemed to me that police abuses were the result of some systemic social problem. I discovered that society is not generous enough to solve its inequalities, so it demands some control and asks the police to do the dirty work.”

All his life, Mr. Sevigny was a jazz and blues fan. In the 1980s, during a visit to a jazz club on the Upper West Side, he learned about the city's Prohibition-era Cabaret Law.

That law required any place where music or dancing was performed and food was served to have a license. Bars and restaurants that featured live music could operate without a license, but only if the music they featured was “incidental,” which the law defined as no more than three performers and three types of instruments on a stage at a time.

For years, club owners and musicians had tried to repeal the ordinance. Mr. Sevigny came up with the idea of ​​a legal challenge on First Amendment grounds.

A Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled in two decisions, in 1986 and 1988, in favor of the Sevigny plaintiffs (a vibraphonist, trumpeter and singer) that the Cabaret Law violated musicians' right to free expression. Sevigny became a celebrity in the city's clubs.

Paul Graves Chevigny was born on July 12, 1935 in Seattle. His father, Héctor Chevigny, was a writer of radio plays. His mother, Claire (Graves) Chevigny, was a newspaper columnist and schoolteacher.

Chevigny graduated from Yale University in 1957 and Harvard Law School in 1960. After 57 years of marriage, his wife died in 2021. In addition to his daughter Blue, he is survived by another daughter, Katy Chevigny, and two grandchildren.

In middle age, Chevigny began tap dancing after seeing a class one of her daughters was taking. She was inspired to revise a part of the Cabaret Law, which was still in force, which prohibited dancing in bars and restaurants without a license.

Once again, he filed a lawsuit, arguing that dancing is free speech protected by the New York State Constitution. The court ruled against Chevigny in 2006, although the judge urged lawmakers to address the issue, writing, “Surely the Big Apple is big enough to find a way to let people dance.”

The City Council repealed the ban on dancing in 2017.

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