Updated September 28, 2020 - 5:42 pm
Lawyers for a group of Black Lives Matter protesters and legal observers have filed an excessive force lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department.
The 66-page federal complaint filed on behalf of seven people, some of whom have participated in protests for years, also alleges a violation of constitutional rights, retaliation by police, negligent training of officers and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The suit claims that officers violated Metro’s own policies against forceful tactics used on nonviolent people.
Police “used violent crowd control tactics,” the lawsuit filed Friday alleges, and “knowingly placed demonstrators in physical danger and, in fact, injured demonstrators through their reckless and indiscriminate use of these tactics. Far from only targeting those engaged in looting or other breaches of the peace, Metro employed these tactics on legal observers, journalists, and those who posed absolutely no threat to police or to the public.”
Metro officials declined to comment on the suit.
‘Conduct needs to stop’
The suit details encounters with police from the seven people who protested or acted as legal observers during equal justice demonstrations across the Las Vegas Valley.
They are Lance Downes-Covington, who protested on the Strip on June 1; Soldadera Sanchez, who has organized social justice protests since August 2014; Robert O’Brien, an attorney who acted as a legal observer; Emily Driscoll, another legal observer; Alison Kenady, who has protested for 17 years in Las Vegas, Chicago and Washington, D.C.; Tenisha Martin, who has organized protests since 2012; and Gabriela Molina, a UNLV student who acted as a legal observer.
Driscoll and Molina were among at least seven attorneys and law students arrested at a protest in June as they acted as legal observers.
One of the four attorneys who filed the suit, Maggie McLetchie, called peaceful protests “the most central American activity.”
McLetchie also represents the Review-Journal, and while the lawsuit references the arrests of journalists at Las Vegas protests, none were named as plaintiffs.
Of police actions during protests, McLetchie added: “The most important thing is that this conduct needs to stop.”
During several protests, as officers demanded that protesters disperse, police fired tear gas and pepper balls into crowds. The suit cited department standards in which Metro states that “projectile weapons should only be used against persons who are armed, have access to a weapon, or pose an imminent threat to the safety of the officers or others” and disapproved of such use in “civil unrest situations,” unless authorized by commanders.
The lawsuit also alleged that police had potentially exposed protesters to the novel coronavirus after they were forced to remove face coverings as officers fired chemical irritants into the crowds, “clinging to the cloth and in the air, making it hard to breathe.”
In some instances, Metro “tactics such as ‘kettling’ forced protesters into closer quarters and break social distancing rules in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the suit stated.
McLetchie said she was not aware of any protesters named in the suit who had become infected.
Several of those named in the suit were exposed to tear gas. Sanchez, for instance, “was overtaken by a burning feeling deep in her lungs, making it impossible to breathe.”
In the suit, the lawyers for Downes-Covington said he was protesting peacefully among Black fraternity brothers at a June 1 rally when officers fired pepper balls, and he was handcuffed and “held to the ground” after police said he did not follow a dispersal order.
“Downes-Covington explained to the officer that he had never heard the dispersal order,” the suit alleges. “The officer then said, ‘Why don’t you stop f—— protesting?’ ”
He has not protested since “out of fear and frustration,” according to the suit. “Every time he thinks about that night, he is reminded of the fear he felt when he was detained and an officer wearing military gear and holding a semi-automatic weapon stood right next to him. He was — and is — afraid that he might become the next ‘hashtag’ of yet another innocent Black person killed or brutalized by police.”