Protesters File Lawsuit Against City of Columbus, Officers
A group of local law firms filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Wednesday against the City of Columbus, Columbus Division of Police Chief Thomas Quinlan, Sergeant David Gitlitz and several officers on behalf of over a dozen people attacked by Columbus police officers during recent protests who used “excessive use of force, including pepper spraying, tear gassing, and assaulting with physical force and rubber bullets or wooden pellets, and flash-bang grenades against nonviolent protestors,” according to the lawsuit.
Besides seeking over $25,000 in damages, the lawsuit also seeks systematic reforms for the Columbus Division of Police.
In a virtual news conference on Wednesday, lawyers said they received “call after call” from people who needed help after enduring injustices at the hands of police. “We knew something had to be done,” said Sean Walton of Walton + Brown, LLP, one of the firms that filed the lawsuit.
“This much is clear: Policing in America, and policing in Columbus specifically, is broken, and it is time for transformative change,” he said.
Lawyers said the city failed to deter or punish officers using unnecessary and excessive force. Lawyers also shared that there is no civil liability for Columbus police officers and that taxpayers are left to pay judgments against police officers.
As a result, in addition to compensatory damages, the lawsuit seeks punitive damages against the chief, sergeant and officers.
Multiple plaintiffs spoke during the press conference on the mistreatment they experienced which lead to the lawsuit.
Plaintiff Rebecca Lamey said at the conference that while she and friends were peacefully protesting, officers began to shoot wooden pellets protesters and eventually her group, all while trying to retreat from the confrontation with officers and later get ice for their injuries. Based on the location of those injuries — her hands and arms — the pellets must have been shot directly at her rather than “skip-fired” on the ground as division police notes, the lawsuit says.
Plaintiff Demetrius Burke explained what lead to him to being arrested on his own property, where an officer “falsely told another officer that Mr. Burke was standing in the street” after the city curfew, as put in the lawsuit.
Tammy Alsaada, organizing director People’s Justice Project, lead organizer of the Juvenile Justice Coalition and a member of the Community Safety Advisory Commission, is also a plaintiff in the case. Because of her position with these groups, she was familiar with the officer in charge at the protests taking place on May 30, Deputy Chief Michael Woods.
Alsaada says she asked if she could speak with him, after which he asked officers to let her through. However, once she and other People Justice Project activists tried to approach, officers fired pepper spray at them “without notice, without any warning, and without any provocation,” per the lawsuit.
“I’ve sat in rooms begging for people to pay attention. And it doesn’t matter to me what happens in the lawsuit,” she said at the conference. “What matters to me is that we leave a city with people who care enough to not start a war against citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Walton said it is not enough to rely on reform from Mayor Andrew Ginther or Police Chief Quinlan, adding that changes should have happened “long ago.” The lawsuit lists a set of demands in an effort to reform the division of police.
This includes banning the use of various weapons used against protesters of late, as well as chokeholds and strangleholds, no-knock warrants and “pressure or weight on the neck, back or hip of a prone suspect;” enforcing that officers display badge numbers or identity cards when interacting with the public, the request to “require officers to intervene when they see another officer using excessive force or retaliation” and nearly a dozen more.
Policing in Columbus cannot be reimagined without “real accountability,” said Walton. “This lawsuit will be a catalyst for change.”
Read the press release from Walton + Brown here.