Suit alleges Detroit Police used excessive force against legal observers

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A Detroit police officer at Black Lives Matter protest May 31, 2020, in Detroit. (Shutterstock photo)

Attorneys with the National Lawyers Guild amended a previously filed lawsuit Monday that accuses  Detroit Police officers  of using excessive-force tactics against legal observers during last summer’s protests that erupted in the wake of George  Floyd’s death at the hands of  a Minneapolis police officer. 

In the lawsuit, legal observers said they were tear-gassed, beaten, pepper sprayed and shot with rubber bullets by Detroit police. 

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The lawsuit says the legal observers were documenting and recording Black Lives Matter protests between May and August 2020. The suit alleges the observers were tear-gassed, beaten, pepper sprayed and shot with rubber bullets by police officers, despite wearing bright green “legal observer” hats. 

Julie Hurwitz, vice president of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), says the legal observer program serves an important function to our democracy. 

“It is part of a comprehensive system of legal support designed to enable people to express their political views without unconstitutional disruption or interference by the police,” Hurwitz said. 

Hurwitz said she spoke with Detroit Deputy Police Chief Todd Bettison last summer about informing officers that legal observers would be at the protests wearing bright green hats to identify themselves. 

Lawrence Garcia, corporation counsel for the City of Detroit, said in a statement that DPD worked to keep peace during the protests. 

“Detroit Police have been doing a good job of keeping the peace during protests and professionally handling allegations of misconduct after the fact. Fair and honest self-assessment is crucial, especially these days. I doubt the recently filed ‘legal observer’ claims will uncover anything new about last summer’s protest activity, but we will examine the matter carefully and defend accordingly,” Garcia said in the statement. 

Marie Reimers, an attorney with the NLG and a plaintiff, has been a legal observer for the past six years. Reimers says she’s never witnessed anything like what she saw at protests in Detroit last summer. 

“Over the course of 2020, I was beaten and gassed several times, and I suffered long-term physical health consequences because of the beatings, because of the gas,” Reimers said. 

Reimers, who is white, says the physical health consequences aren’t the worst part of the negative interactions with DPD officers. She says the worst part is the fear she gets from seeing police officers. 

“I was able to spend 27 years of my life living without fear of the police. That’s 27 years without fear. My Black and Brown neighbors in this city are not that lucky. They grow up with that terror. They live with the knowledge that DPD could terrorize them at any time with impunity and without consequence,” she said. 

David Robinson, a civil rights attorney and former member of DPD, said there is footage that depicts some of the allegations in the lawsuit. 

“There were no cameras when I was patrolling the streets, but today there is a camera everywhere. Despite that, we see over and over police officers ruining the lives of Black and Brown people,” Robinson said. 

The lawsuit, which names Mayor Mike Duggan and Police Chief James Craig personally, claims that the plaintiffs were exercising their legal right to document the actions of police officers during these demonstrations.

Shannon McEvilly, another plaintiff in the suit and attorney with NLG, claims she was maced and struck by a riot shield during a protest on Aug. 22 that led to the arrests of 44 protesters. 

“I believe the police targeted legal observers with violence, on that night in particular, in order to prevent us from witnessing and documenting their brutality against nonviolent protesters,” McEvilly said. 

The city is currently facing a lawsuit from protesters, including the group Detroit Will Breathe, that alleges officers used excessive force against peaceful protesters on multiple occasions between May and August 2020. 

Last September, a federal judge temporarily banned officers in the department from using excessive-force tactics like chokeholds, rubber bullets, batons, shields and sound cannons on peaceful protesters.

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