$1. 6 million. That's the combined amount the District will pay plaintiffs in two lawsuits filed on behalf of journalists, legal observers, and demonstrators who protested the inauguration of President Trump in January 2017 charged that former Metropolitan Police Department Police Chief Peter Newsham and more than two dozen MPD officers engaged in or supervised constitutional violations including mass arrests of demonstrators without probable cause, unlawful conditions of confinement for detainees, and/or use of excessive force.
It's already been a busy week for the ACLU-DC. Before we tell you what we've been up to, though, let's go back to the beginning: January 20, 2017. The Inauguration of President Trump.
In response to vandalism and property damage caused by a small number of protestors, MPD officers rounded up, or "kettled," more than 200 protesters – including many who had broken no laws – and detained them with no access to food, water, or restrooms for up to 16 hours. Officers also deployed pepper spray and explosive devices against protesters, without warning, and in circumstances where there was no threat of harm to officers or the public.
So we sued.
The lawsuits asserted that MPD officers violated the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, and D.C. law. Along with Gwen Frisbie-Fulton and her son <[link removed]>, the ACLU-DC represents demonstrators Elizabeth Lagesse and Milo Gonzalez, photojournalist Shay Horse, and legal observer Judah Ariel. The other lawsuit is a class action filed on behalf of more than 100 demonstrators.
Our clients were injured and traumatized because of the harsh and unconstitutional tactics they experienced. That type of crackdown sends a chilling message to all who would protest in the nation's capital, and we won't allow it.
This past Monday, the ACLU-DC, the Law Office of Jeffrey Light, and the District filed court papers stating that D.C. will pay $1.6 million to settle two demonstrators' rights lawsuits <[link removed]>. This is due to former MPD Police Chief Peter Newsham and more than two dozen MPD officers engaging in or supervising constitutional violations, including mass arrests of demonstrators without probable cause, unlawful conditions of confinement for detainees, and/or use of excessive force.
Even after the events at the 2017 Inauguration protests, we've seen this type of conduct from MPD repeatedly at mass demonstrations. Moving forward, we will urge the D.C. Council to permanently ban the use of tear gas, pepper spray, stingballs, and other weapons at First Amendment events. We'll also demand the requirement of a reminder to all police ahead of mass demonstrations about demonstrators' rights and reforms to prisoner processing so that future arrestees won't have to wait up to 16 hours – as our clients did – for food, water, and bathrooms.
The lesson here? Accountability.
It's clear D.C. police have a lot to learn about policing protests fairly and without bias. D.C. police need to be held accountable for their unconstitutional guilt-by-association policing and suppression of constitutionally protected speech.
We think the $1.6m combined settlement amount sends that message. Hopefully, D.C.'s new chief of police is listening.
Legal Director, ACLU of the District of Columbia