A federal jury’s $14 million award to Denver protesters hit with pepper balls and a bag full of lead during the 2020 protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis could reverberate across the country as the courts weigh more than two dozen similar lawsuits.
The jury found that police used excessive force against protesters, violating their constitutional rights, and ordered the city of Denver to pay 12 people who sued.
Nationwide, there are at least 29 pending lawsuits challenging law enforcement’s use of force during protests in 2020, according to research from the University of Michigan’s Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse.
Denver’s verdict could spur cities to settle similar cases rather than risk going to trial and losing, said Michael J. Steinberg, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and director of Civil Rights Litigation Initiative. It could also prompt more protesters to sue for their treatment at the hands of police.
“There is no doubt that the grand jury verdict in Denver will influence the outcome of the ongoing police misconduct cases brought by Black Lives Matter protesters across the country,” said Steinberg, whose law students have worked on a similar lawsuit filed by protesters in Detroit.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that police used indiscriminate force against nonviolent protesters, including some who were filming the protests, because officers did not like their message criticizing law enforcement.
“To protests against police brutality, they responded with brutality,” one of their attorneys, Timothy Macdonald, told jurors.
People who took part in the protests have already made similar allegations in lawsuits across the country.
In Washington, DC, activists and civil liberties groups have filed a lawsuit for forcibly evicting protesters before then-President Trump visited a church near the White House for a photo shoot. Complaints against federal officials were dismissed last year, but a judge allowed the case to proceed against local police.
Several lawsuits alleging protesters were wrongfully arrested or police used excessive force have been filed against New York City and its police department, including one brought by New York Atty. General Letitia James who claims police used excessive force and wrongfully arrested protesters. In Rochester, NY, people who protested the death of Daniel Prude, a black man who passed out after being pinned to the street by officers during a mental health call in 2020, say police have used extreme force against them in a lawsuit that also alleges city authorities allowed a culture of police brutality against racial minorities to fester.
One of their attorneys, Donald Thompson, said he plans to raise Denver’s price during settlement talks with the city and noted that unlike most protesters in Denver, some of his clients suffered lasting injuries, including the loss of an eye and scars from being hit in the face with a tear gas canister. Thompson also thinks the Denver verdict shows that the public, in the age of cellphone videos and body cameras, is no longer so willing to give police the benefit of the doubt.
“Now people are seeing how this policing really works,” he said. “You can’t be naive.”
A Rochester spokeswoman, Barbara Pierce, declined to comment, saying the best forum to discuss her legal position was the court process. When the case was filed, the city said it had already reviewed how police respond to protests.
Over the past two months, the city of Austin, Texas has agreed to pay a total of $13 million to four people who were struck in the head by bean bag bullets fired by police.
Even before Denver’s decision last week, the police department made some changes in response to criticism sparked by the protests, including eliminating the use of 40-millimeter foam canisters for crowd control and changing the way whose agents are authorized to use pepper balls.
The Denver Department of Public Safety, which includes the police department, said in a statement that the city was unprepared for the level of sustained violence and destruction. During the trial, lawyers and witnesses said more than 80 officers were injured as some in the crowd threw rocks, water bottles and canned goods at them.
The department said it continues to evaluate its policies to “better protect peaceful protesters while addressing those who are only there to engage in violence.”
Still, the big payoff shouldn’t lead to an overhaul of how officers respond to what experts say are inherently chaotic situations that are difficult to prepare for.
Ed Obayashi, a use of force consultant to law enforcement and deputy sheriff and legal counsel for Plumas County in California, said the company may have to bear the cost of these settlements because innocent people can being injured during protests as outnumbered police attempt to respond on the fly, including to people who intend to commit acts of violence.
“It’s really going south in an instant because there are individuals who want to cause chaos,” he said.
Obayashi said there hasn’t been much police training for the protests, which have been relatively rare. He said it would be prohibitively expensive for officers to practice deploying equipment such as tear gas canisters. Because projectiles used in crowds and considered “less deadly” by police, such as rubber bullets and pepper balls, have less speed and less power to injure people, it is more difficult to escape. ensure they hit their mark, he said.
Lawyers representing people who have also alleged police misconduct and a violation of their constitutional right to protest can now use Denver’s damages award as part of their own settlement negotiations, said Mark Silverstein, chief legal officer of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented some of the winning Denver protesters.
The ruling came nearly two years after thousands of people angry at Floyd’s death took to the streets across the country, a relatively quick outcome for the justice system and soon enough for others who allege wrongdoing. the police file a complaint. In Colorado and many other states, there is a two-year statute of limitations for such lawsuits, Silverstein said, leaving only a few months for others to sue.
The city attorney’s office said it has not decided to appeal the verdict, but appeals in such large cases are common, said Gloria Browne-Marshall, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Outside attorneys will also review the case to try to determine if there are any unique circumstances that may have led to a “lightning in a bottle” verdict that is less likely to be repeated.
However, she believes the verdict sends an important message that ordinary people respect the right to protest and demand change from the government, a message she believes police and prosecutors have undermined.
“That should send a message to both of them, but whether they listen or not is another matter,” Browne-Marshall said.