DENVER — Jurors on Friday found police used excessive force against protesters, violating their constitutional rights, during demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd two years ago, ordering the city to pay a total of $14 million in damages to a group of 12 who sued.
Two men and six women from Colorado were part of the jury. They made their verdict after four hours of deliberations. Following three weeks’ worth of evidence and testimony that also included video from protestors and police, the jury returned its verdict after about four hours.
It was believed that it was the first case in a suit challenging the tactics of officers during protests around 2020 over Floyd’s death and those of other Blacks.
Protesters sued for damages were hit with pepper spray, as well as a Kevlar bag containing lead shot from a shotgun. Zach Packard, who was hit in the head by the shotgun blast and ended up in the intensive care unit, received the largest damage amount — $3 million.
One of the protesters’ lawyers, Timothy Macdonald, had urged jurors to send a message to police in Denver and elsewhere by finding the city liable during closing arguments.
“Hopefully, what police departments will take from this is a jury of regular citizens takes these rights very seriously,” he said after the verdict.
Elisabeth Epps was a lawyer and activist. She said that attorneys representing the city she loved gaslighted the protesters, challenging their version of the events. At one point, a lawyer for Denver called her a “professional protester” after she testified that she had attended protests since she was a child and had received training about how to respond to being tear-gassed. Her emotions grew as she spoke about the meaning of the jury siding with the protesters.
“It feels like being seen,” Epps said.
The demonstrators claimed police’s actions infringed on their right to freedom of speech as well as the right to protection against unreasonable force. The jury found that 11 protesters had violated both their free speech rights and the other only. The protesters claimed Denver was liable for the police’s actions through its policies, including giving officers wide discretion in using what police call “less lethal” devices, failing to train officers on them, and not requiring them to use their body-worn cameras during the protests to deter indiscriminate uses of force.
Denver acknowledged that it made mistakes during the protests. It claimed they were unheard of in terms of their duration, size and level. More than 80 officers suffered injuries when protestors hurled rock, water bottles, canned foods and other objects at them. According to city records, $1.1million in damages was done to the Capitol. Protesters who sued lawyers emphasized that they had not been accused of using violence.
One of Denver’s lawyers, Lindsay Jordan, told jurors that the city had planned a large training in crowd control in the spring of 2020 because of the upcoming presidential election, but it was canceled because of COVID-19. She stressed that errors made during the demonstrations by police officers do not necessarily equate with constitutional violations. Her testimony included the observation of thousands returning to their rights to free speech despite the excessive force used by the police throughout the five-day period.
“The violence and destruction that occurred around the community required intervention,” she said.
The department reports that five Denver officers have been fired for participating in protests. Another officer, who was new and still on probation, was fired during the protests after posting a photo of himself and others dressed in tactical gear on social media with the comment “Let’s start a riot.”
Police brutality in the national protests have led to aggressive responses by officers. This has resulted in financial settlements, departures from police chiefs and criminal prosecutions.
Austin officials agreed to reimburse protestors injured by protests during May 2020. In addition, 19 officers were indicted on charges of causing injury to protesters. Dallas cops were last month charged with injuring protesters using less-lethal weapons.
A federal judge in 2021 dismissed the majority of claims by civil liberties and activists groups regarding the removal of protesters from police custody. This happened before President Donald Trump went to the White House to take a photograph.
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