Leading law enforcement figures in Minnesota were sued Tuesday on allegations that officers violated protesters' civil rights when they wounded them during the late-spring unrest in Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis names as defendants Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, state Department of Public Safety (DPS) Commissioner John Harrington, State Patrol Col. Matthew Langer and Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob Kroll.
The suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a Twin Cities law firm lists four Minneapolis plaintiffs — Nekima Levy Armstrong and husband Marques Armstrong, Terry Hempfling and Rachel Clark — but is requesting class-action status, which could lead to many more joining.
Messages were left for all the defendants late Tuesday morning seeking their response to the suit. None has addressed the specific allegations, but the DPS said in a statement that it "defends and supports citizens' constitutional right to First Amendment expression when exercised in a lawful and nonviolent manner."
This is at least the third federal lawsuit against law enforcement in connection with the protests. In early June, the ACLU sued seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent officer misconduct directed at the news media. The suit said officers threatened, assaulted and, in several cases, arrested members of the media, even after they identified themselves as journalists.
In mid-June, freelance journalist Linda Tirado alleged in her suit that officers blinded her in one eye with a nonlethal projectile fired at her despite her declaring in words and documentation that she was a member of the news media.
According to Tuesday's suit, Minneapolis police and the patrol used unnecessary and excessive force to suppress the free speech rights of protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, foam bullets and other devices.
The officers often fired without warning and inflicted injuries to the four named plaintiffs that remain two months later, the suit says, listing severe bruising and vocal difficulties from the tear gas as among the afflictions.
"No one should face tear gassing, foam bullets or pepper spray while exercising their right to peacefully protest," Teresa Nelson, legal director for the ACLU in Minnesota, said in a statement released in concert with the suit's filing. "That law enforcement here followed their typical pattern of using indiscriminate force rather than respecting the First Amendment, especially following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four of their own, is disgraceful and an affront to our Constitution."
Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and activist, added in her own statement: "As one of the protesters who was teargassed, I still feel the lingering effects of such a strong chemical agent. We are participating in the lawsuit to protect our First Amendment freedoms of speech and the right to peaceably assemble in protest."
The suit details what the Armstrongs say they endured while at the Third Precinct police station at E. Lake Street and S. Minnehaha Avenue on May 27 during their second day of protesting:
Early that evening, officers on the precinct roof sprayed tear gas into the crowd without warning that reached the Armstrongs while the were peacefully demonstrating.
Nekima Levy Armstrong felt tingling and burning in her throat and chest, while both struggled to breathe. Since that encounter, her voice has yet to return to normal, and she has had "lingering lung issues."
Hempfling was in the same area on the same day, the suit says, and was struck on the back of her right arm by "a rubber bullet and/or less-lethal munition fired by the MPD," according to the suit.
On May 29, a few hours after a statewide curfew went into effect, Hempfling and Clark were confronted by officers near the Fifth Precinct station at E. 31st Street and S. Nicollet Avenue. Within a minute or two of a dispersal order being issued, the Minneapolis police fired tear gas and nonlethal munitions at the women.
Hempfling was hit four times: twice on her back and once each on her breast and thigh. The bruising has remained for two months. Clark was hit on one arm, a hip and an ankle. Her bruises also have yet to heal.
The lawsuit seeks a declaration that this police conduct violated the First, Fourth and 14th amendments to the Constitution, an injunction against similar actions by law enforcement in the future and unspecified compensation for damages and attorneys' fees.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482