D.C. To Pay $1.6M In Police Misconduct Lawsuit Filed After 2017 Inauguration Protests Two lawsuits alleged that D.C. police violated a slew of constitutional rights when conducting mass arrests during Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017.
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NPR logo D.C. To Pay $1.6M In Police Misconduct Lawsuit Filed After 2017 Inauguration Protests

D.C. To Pay $1.6M In Police Misconduct Lawsuit Filed After 2017 Inauguration Protests

D.C. police near Franklin Square on Inauguration Day 2017. Rachel Kurzius/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Rachel Kurzius/WAMU/DCist

D.C. will pay $1.6 million to settle two lawsuits filed against the city for false arrests and excessive force during demonstrations on Inauguration Day in 2017.

The lawsuits — one filed by the ACLU of D.C. and a class action suit by civil rights attorney Jeffrey Light — charge that D.C. police violated the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, in addition to D.C. law, when they arrested more than 200 people without probable cause during protests against former president Donald Trump's inauguration.

The suits also alleged unlawful conditions of confinement for those arrests, and excessive use of force by Metropolitan Police Department officers.

The $1.6 million is a combined payment from the city in both suits; the case brought by the ACLU of D.C. settled for $605,000 while the class-action lawsuit, which is still subject to final approval by a court, is set to settle for $995,000, according to a statement from the D.C. ACLU.

"The contrast between the over-policing of constitutionally protected speech on Inauguration Day 2017 and the under-policing of a violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol earlier this year starkly demonstrates law enforcement's institutional biases," Scott Michelman, legal director of the D.C. ACLU, wrote in a news release. "A diverse group of protestors with a left-wing message was subjected to a mass arrest without cause, whereas armed white insurrectionists with a right-wing message stormed Congress, and the police let them walk away."

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On Jan. 20, 2017, police and demonstrators clashed in downtown D.C in a scene described as the "Wild West" by Shay Horse, a photojournalist who was covering the demonstrations. A small group of protesters engaged in activities like smashing windows and setting fires — actions that the U.S. Attorney for D.C. declared a "violent riot" — resulting in the arrests of 217 people.

Three days after the arrests, the U.S. Attorney for D.C. charged 230 people with felony rioting.

The D.C. ACLU filed its case against MPD, former Police Chief Peter Newsham, and other officers in June 2017. Four plaintiffs, including Horse, a legal observer, and a 10-year-old boy, alleged that they were among those pepper-sprayed and kettled during the arrests near Franklin Square. They also alleged that D.C. police held individuals for several hours in a police van with their hands zip-tied so tightly that Horse said he experienced numbness in his fingers months later.

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, a plaintiff in the case and the mother of the 10-year-old boy, described witnessing police pepper-spraying protesters with so-called "super soakers," and knocking her son to the ground.

"I came with my son, then 10 years old, to the nation's capital on Inauguration Day 2017 to exercise my constitutional rights and teach him about the power of protest," said Frisbie-Fulton, of North Carolina, in the D.C. ACLU statement on the settlement. "Because of the wanton and brutal conduct of the D.C. police, we ended up fleeing through a cloud of pepper spray for doing nothing but chanting and holding signs. So the real lesson in how our Constitution works had to be this lawsuit, showing that there can be consequences when law enforcement abuses its power."

The class-action suit, filed by Light on behalf of more than 100 protesters, came just a day after the Inauguration, and alleged that police "indiscriminately and repeatedly" used chemical irritants, batons, and flash-bang grenades when kettling protesters.

At the time, D.C. police defended officers' actions on Jan. 20, and denied the use of flash-bang grenades against protesters, despite eye witness accounts of the scene and media reports confirming those accounts.

A spokesperson for D.C. Police declined to comment on the settlement. When asked about the settlements and mass arrests during the 2017 protests during a press conference on Monday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser declined to comment.

"It speaks volumes that the District has chosen to settle rather than defend MPD's obviously unconstitutional action in court," Light wrote in an emailed statement to DCist. "Today's settlements provide some measure of compensation for all the people who were unconstitutionally arrested and confined for exercising their rights on Inauguration Day four years ago."

While charges were later dismissed against some of journalists who were arrested on Jan. 20, others still faced charges that could result in years in prison. According to the D.C. ACLU's statement on the settlements, the U.S. Attorney for D.C. has agreed that the office will not oppose motions to expunge the arrest records of plaintiffs in either suit.

The settlements come after a year of intense protests in the city, many which were met with a violent response by D.C. Police. MPD officers used a similar kettling tactic to arrest more than 200 protesters on Swann Street during protests in June 2020 that followed in the wake of George Floyd's murder; others, meanwhile, fled into nearby homes for hours. Another suit from the D.C. ACLU filed last July alleges that hours before the Swann Street kettling, D.C. police engaged in the aggressive removal of protesters with the use of tear gas for former president Donald Trump's photo opp in Lafayette Square. (Two officers named in the two 2017 case settlements also are named as defendants in the Lafayette Square suit, according to the D.C. ACLU).

Following the March on Washington in August 2020, in what some locals described as the most aggressive police response to protests yet, MPD again deployed flash bangs and chemical irritants against protesters, despite emergency legislation that banned MPD from using irritants to "disperse a First Amendment assembly." (D.C. Police justified the use of sting balls and tear gas at the time, stating that there was a group of individuals that was "intent on damaging property and injuring Metropolitan Police Department officers" who began to engage in "riotous behavior.")

According to the D.C. ACLU, a stipulation of its case settlement includes a requirement that MPD issue a "formal directive" modifying the procedures for arresting protesters to prevent long wait times and limited access to bathrooms, food, and water. Another ACLU report on the Swann Street kettling earlier this year also called for the department to reform its procedures for mass arrests during First Amendment demonstrations.

According to The Washington Post, D.C. has spent millions over the past five years quietly settling lawsuits over police misconduct, even when officers do not admit wrongdoing.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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