$150m paid in police misconduct claims shows violent response to 2020 protests, experts say

<span>Police officers arrest a protester in New York on 29 May 2020.</span><span>Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Police officers arrest a protester in New York on 29 May 2020.Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP via Getty Images

In the four years since mass protests broke out over the killing of George Floyd, cities across the US have settled more than 130 lawsuits involving police misconduct with payouts totaling nearly $150m to protesters, journalists, legal observers and bystanders, according to an analysis of the lawsuits published this week.

The settlements, which include some of the largest payouts over protest-related police actions to date, also forced a slew of reforms on to departments, including restrictions on the use of so-called “less lethal” weapons. Taken together, the report notes, the lawsuits’ outcomes fundamentally refute the narrative that the protests were violent and underscore how it was the police response to them that broke laws and violated rights.

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“After reviewing so many lawsuits, a consistent story emerges: cops had zero interest in honoring the first amendment rights of protesters,” said Sue Udry, executive director of the free speech group Defending Rights & Dissent and author of the report. “The most successful lawsuits won restitution for individuals and significant new restrictions on police. But they are piecemeal, and no substitute for systemic change.”

Floyd’s killing, on 25 May 2020, was captured in a viral video and prompted millions of people to take to the street across the country in protests that led to about 17,000 arrests in the first two weeks alone. (The killing also resulted in a rare criminal prosecution of a police officer – Chauvin is serving a 21-year sentence at a federal prison, along with a concurrent state sentence.) While the vast majority of protests were peaceful, police regularly responded in full riot gear, kettling demonstrators and making mass arrests for non-violent offenses like curfew violations. Often, they fired less-lethal weapons into crowds, on several occasions leading to permanent injuries.

The report tracks the outcomes of lawsuits filed in response to police actions in 40 cities and 25 states but does not include many more cases that remain pending. The settlements, as well as a handful of jury verdicts for the rare cases that went to trial, counter the narrative promoted at the time by the Trump administration that called the demonstrations “riots” and protesters “terrorists”. Instead, the analysis shows, it was often police that escalated tensions and violated protesters’ rights.

Those violations led to some of the largest monetary settlements over police misconduct recorded to date – including payouts of $7m and $13m to hundreds of people subjected to indiscriminate arrests and violence at different New York City protests, as well as a payout of $9.25m to protesters police trapped on a highway and teargassed in Philadelphia. In Denver, a federal jury awarded $14m to 12 people whom police shot with projectiles at close range. In Seattle, 48 protesters, including a woman who went into cardiac arrest after police hit her with a “blast ball”, won a $10m settlement.

Excessive force and the use of less-lethal weapons were among the most frequently cited claims in lawsuits filed against police, according to the report’s authors, followed by accusations of false arrest, the use of teargas, batons and kettles. More than a dozen settled lawsuits that resulted in payouts involved police misconduct against journalists, including three that accused them of breaking or confiscating equipment.

With some exceptions, such as the case of a Los Angeles protester who successfully won damages from the officer who shot him in the face with a rubber bullet, consequences for individual officers are rare, as they are normally protected from liability under a doctrine known as “qualified immunity”. But large settlements also have little impact on police departments themselves as the payments rarely come directly out of police budgets.

In addition to seeking compensation for victims, many of the settlements were catalysts for reforms, the report notes. Some forced cities to impose transparency measures such as requirements that police turn on their body cameras and display their badge numbers, restrictions on the use of less-lethal weapons, and changes to local rules that unduly restricted the right to protest.

At times, protesters asked for and received symbolic actions, such as a public apology from a Portland police officer accused of assaulting a photographer, or a request that the city of Richmond retract claims that the protesters had been violent and donate police records from the protests to the Library of Virginia.

In New York City, an array of lawsuits filed in response to the Floyd protests prompted significant reforms, including a prohibition on kettling, a new response system meant to deploy fewer officers to protests and prioritize de-escalation, and protections for press observing and recording protests. (Those policies are still being drafted, a city spokesperson said this month.)

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But as a new wave of protests – this time over Israel’s US-backed war in Gaza – has once again been met with police crackdowns, advocates fear police are resorting to their old ways.

In recent weeks, police across the country have arrested more than 3,000 people protesting against the war, many of them university students who had set up solidarity encampments on campuses. Police employed a militarized response to largely peaceful demonstrations, dispatching officers in riot gear, including snipers, and firing teargas and rubber bullets. In New York’s Bay Ridge neighborhood this month, police met protesters and journalists with batons and violent arrests – a heavy-handed response that advocates warn violated the commitments made in the aftermath of the Floyd lawsuits.

“This report makes clear that the legal process still has the power to illuminate police violence and expose the ways that police routinely lie about what happens at protests,” said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. But the events of recent weeks, he continued, show that “the basic function of protest policing … remains abusive, politically motivated, and immune from accountability”.

“Police presence at protests needs to be minimized,” Udry said. “Their role should only be protecting the right to protest, controlling traffic – not arresting people because they’re in the street.”