Nearly 150 Protesters Sue Philadelphia Over Police Use of Force

Police officers stand in Interstate 676 in Philadelphia, Monday, June 1, 2020, in the aftermath of protest and unrest in reaction to the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Elle Meyers

July 16, 2020

The plaintiffs in one lawsuit include a medical student who was gassed after treating residents injured by police and a man who was hurt when he was allegedly struck by a rubber bullet.

The city of Philadelphia and its police department are facing a wave of civil rights lawsuits over their use of force during protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

There are nearly 150 litigants in three different civil rights lawsuits that cite use of chemical weapons and other unjust uses of force to quell protests. 

The suits center around the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of force in response to protests and looting on 52nd Street as well as a demonstration later on Interstate 676. The incidents received national attention when videos of the police deploying tear gas canisters, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on protesters went viral. 

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the lawsuits are the first ones filed against the city in response to the civil unrest that gripped the area and brought on a wave of police violence against protesters. 

One suit, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, includes 11 plaintiffs and focuses on an incident on May 31. The complaint alleges that police used a tear gas canister launcher and an armored vehicle in response to looting that took place on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia.

RELATED: Why Philly Protesters Went Back to the Place They Were Tear-Gassed

“[Police] went up and down residential streets in the neighborhood, launching tear gas canisters and firing rubber bullets at residents and passersby who were doing nothing more than sitting on their porches,” the suit alleges.

The plaintiffs include nearby residents who say they were sickened by tear gas floating inside their homes from the street, a medical student who was gassed after treating residents injured by police, and a man whose shoulder was dislocated when he was allegedly struck by a rubber bullet. They also allege that cops used racial epithets while attempting to disperse protesters. 

“City officials must be held accountable for these militaristic police actions, which are discriminatory, illegal, and completely unacceptable,” NAACP LDF Assistant Counsel Cara McClellan told WHYY. “Our clients deserve safety and security in their own neighborhood and to be free of fear of discrimination and police terror.”

A second suit filed by the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin includes 41 plaintiffs who were tear gassed on I-676 as police tried to clear thousands of protestors. 

The complaint alleges that the city allowed an “extraordinary abuse of police power” to occur on the interstate. During the incident, Pennsylvania State Police were videotaped using mace on kneeling protesters while Philadelphia city police fired canisters of tear gas to disperse the crowd. Demonstrators that ran away from the scene were trapped on an embankment. 

One lawsuit alleges that “hundreds of demonstrators [were] stranded on [an embankment], unable to leave, engulfed in clouds of smoke and tear gas,” as officers used tear gas canisters and rubber bullets on protesters that left people “coughing, vomiting, crying, unable to breathe, and, in some cases, losing consciousness.”

The plaintiffs in this suit include dozens who say they also became sick from the tear gas, a man who said he suffered burns after being shot with a gas canister, and a former member of the National Guard who reported suffering an asthma attack due to tear gas and was prevented from using his inhaler by police officers.

“It is difficult to imagine a more egregious violation of the Constitution on a massive scale than what we saw on 676,” Attorney Jonathan Feinburg told WHYY. “Each of our clients was injured — physically and emotionally — in a serious way, and we have brought this suit to hold the City accountable for the harms it caused.”

Immediately following the incidents, city officials defended police actions but later issued a formal apology over the incident on I-676. But the lawsuit argues that city officials were aware that police had used excessive force the night before on 52nd Street that resulted in multiple civilian injuries.

“Despite that knowledge, they made no changes to their operational plans,” the attorneys wrote in the complaint. 

City officials admitted after the incidents that they were unprepared for the size of the protests following George Floyd’s death, according to the Inquirer. Local reporting also found that the police neglected to use strategies that had earned them national awards in the past for dealing with demonstrations without incident.

The third lawsuit filed by Mincey Fitzpatrick Ross includes 94 plaintiffs that were present either at 52nd Street or I-676. This suit includes a group of peaceful protesters that were maced by an officer who was later fired, according to WHYY

The suit alleges a long history of racism in local policing that has led to excessive force. It also accused Philadelphia Commissioner Danielle Outlaw of having a negative track record on use of force against protesters in her previous role as the chief of police in Portland, Oregon.

The three lawsuits name Outlaw, Mayor Jim Kenney and Managing Director Brian Abernathy (who plans to resign and leave his post in September) as defendants, among others.


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