Detroit police officers restrain Nakia Wallace, co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe, during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Detroit police have since been banned from using chokeholds after excessive force lawsuits and a change in Board of Police Commissioners policy. (Photo courtesy of Adam J. Dewey)

Detroit’s City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a proposal to pay nearly $1.3 million to settle a handful of lawsuits stemming from George Floyd protests in 2020.

The “offer of judgment” package from Detroit’s Law Department includes a payout of more than $1 million to members of the protest group Detroit Will Breathe, which demonstrated for more than 100 days during 2020.

In late August 2020, Detroit Will Breathe and several individual plaintiffs filed lawsuits against the city alleging Detroit police had used unconstitutional and excessive force against protesters and prevented them from exercising their First Amendment rights. The demonstrations in Detroit were part of a nationwide movement sparked after Floyd, who was Black, was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Then-Police Chief James Craig and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan took a hard stance throughout 2020 against some of the Black Lives Matter protesters, arguing that agitators from outside of Detroit had been largely responsible for disrupting peaceful protests here in an attempt to cause chaos or start riots.

Craig, who retired as Detroit police chief in June 2021, has said that his policies helped maintain peace in Detroit during the protests. Despite Craig’s stance, the plaintiffs scored an early legal win in September 2020 when a federal judge temporarily banned certain use of force tactics from being used against protesters in the city including chokeholds, rubber bullets, batons, shields and sound cannons.

The Law Department gained the council’s approval Tuesday to extend the proposed offers, which a city document noted stems from a “confidential” June 23 memorandum to council members. The nine-member council approved the judgment offers without discussion.

If accepted, the offers would only cover damages. The city also would be responsible for attorney fees, the document notes.

Amanda Ghannam, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, which is representing Detroit Will Breathe and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said “it’s hard to say” what monetary value the plaintiffs expected the city to offer because the lawsuit was never about the money.

“(Our focus) was injunctive relief, which is the portion of the lawsuit where we asked for and obtained the first the temporary restraining order and the preliminary injunction putting a stop to the police violence that was ongoing at that time,” Ghannam told BridgeDetroit.

The city’s Offer of Judgment doesn’t mention any forms of injunctive relief, which Ghannam finds troubling, but she said that the offer of judgment “means the City would be admitting responsibility for violating folks’ constitutional rights.”

“We want to make sure that if people want to protest in the City of Detroit that they can do so and exercise their First Amendment rights safely and peacefully and without having to worry that hundreds of DPD officers in riot gear are going to show up with batons and tear gas or start choking folks,” she said.

In a statement to BridgeDetroit, Detroit’s Deputy Corporation Counsel Chuck Raimi defended the police department and noted that the offers proposed are in the best financial interest of the city.

“The overwhelming majority of Detroit Police Department officers conducted themselves with courage and honor during the George Floyd protests, despite innumerable violent attacks and other shameful conduct by protestors,” he said. “The city’s Law Department’s offers of judgment reflect the unfortunate reality that in our litigious society, and particularly in cases of this sort where plaintiffs’ lawyers (but not the city’s lawyers) have the opportunity to recover enormous attorney fees payable by the city, the city’s financial interests may be best served by seeking a settlement.”

Ghannam said the case, which is ongoing, has not yet seen depositions from Craig or any of the Detroit police officers accused of taking part in the alleged altercations outlined in the lawsuit.

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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