Cities around the country are facing a wave of lawsuits claiming police departments used "unchecked" and "indiscriminate" violence against protesters in demonstrations tied to, who prosecutors allege was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.
The suits seek a range of police policy changes, including banning the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as millions of dollars in damages that could eventually be paid for by local taxpayers. Among the claims of excessive force contained in the litigation:
- Kneeling protesters in Oakland were allegedly tackled by police officers and "forced into lying in a pile on the ground" by police officers carrying "automatic weapons."
- A woman with spinal injuries and riding a knee scooter claims she was tear-gassed twice by Seattle police.
- Portland police targeted and shot protesters with rubber bullets, including one man who is suing for $950,000 after being hit in the knee, sending him to the hospital.
- Nearly 20 protesters in New York City have filed paperwork indicating they plan to sue the police and the city for being beaten by cops with batons at peaceful rallies.
There is no national database that specifically tracks police brutality lawsuits across the country. But CBS MoneyWatch has identified more than 40 cases filed this month in which protesters say they were brutalized by law enforcement officials while participating in one of the nation's many demonstrations against police violence.
Jonathan Smith, whose Washington Lawyers' Committee is representing protesters who were allegedly, said he and his organization have been contacted by 250 individuals who say they were the victims of police violence in the recent protests in the capital and considering filing suit.
"The law is very generous to police, leading them to do all types of things that most people would say is not right," Smith said. "But the response by police to recent protests has been very extreme."
University of Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger, who runs the Civil Rights Clearinghouse, which tracks class-action suits alleging police violence as well as other cases, said she is seeing many more legal complaints tied to the latest unrest than after past protests. Her clearinghouse has already identified 15 cases tied to the Floyd protests. That's up from just a handful of cases filed a few years ago after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
"There are more civil rights litigation groups in this country, and they are raring to go, especially given the current administration in the White House," Schlanger said.
In recent years, some large cities have faced nine-figure legal bills related to police violence, though there is little transparency around the settlements. Individuals or families that settle with police departments are often barred from publicly discussing their cases. Many cities also only disclose information about policy brutality settlements when asked.
Last year, New York City paid a total of $220 million in 5,848 cases against the city's police department, according to data from the city's comptroller's office. That was down slightly from the year before.
Three years ago, Chicago said in a bond offering statement that it would allocate as much as $225 million from the money raised by the investments to a litigation fund tasked with paying out settlements for cases related to stop-and-frisk policies and other instances of police misconduct.
But much of the money that police departments pay out has to do with the conduct of law enforcement personnel during typical arrests — not responses to mass protests or marches. The biggest payouts come in cases where individuals were wrongly convicted because of police behavior and spent time in jail.
Civil defense experts say cases related to protests often are hard to win, and typically don't produce much in terms of settlements. For example, a $40 million suit against the city of Ferguson and St. Louis County in 2014 alleging police violence against protesters was thrown out by a judge three years later.
Protesters reached a settlement with the St. Louis police department related to the use of tear gas against demonstrators following Brown's death six years ago, but it was only for $7,500 and went toward legal fees.
The policy reforms won in the case also appear to be limited. The New York Times reported that tear gas was used against protesters in both Ferguson and St. Louis in the recent Floyd and Black Lives Matter demonstrations this past month. Either way, experts question whether these cases, or even large legal settlements, do much to quell police misconduct.
Schlanger of the University of Michigan said most settlements are not paid out of police budgets. What's more, she noted, police brutality cases often are settled quietly by city officials without even informing police departments or the officers involved.
"There is no feedback loop at all," she said. "If the money doesn't come out of their budget, or if indeed they don't even know about the settlements, it is hard to see how this will change behavior."
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