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Lawsuit: Legal observers say Detroit Police assaulted them during 2020 protests

police officers brandish weapons at a protest in Detroit this summer
Lester Graham

Five legal observers who say Detroit police officers violently abused them as they monitored anti-police brutality protests last summer have now filed a lawsuit against the city and its police department.

Legal observers attend protests to monitor and document any possible infringement of protesters’ constitutional rights. They’re usually easily-identified by their bright green hats.

Five women say they were doing just that last summer, when Detroit Police subjected them to a combination of chemical sprays and physical attacks. They claim that’s in spite of the fact that police had authorized them to be there—and not doing anything that would justify such force.

In the case of each plaintiff, “This excessive force and assault, while she was not violating any laws, was done without probable cause and in retaliation for exercise of her 1st and 14th Amendment Rights,” according to the lawsuit filed in Detroit’s U.S. District Court last Friday.

One observer, Emma Howland-Bolton, said she was violently arrested after being tackled by officers. The lawsuit says that was the result of “the improper conduct, false information, and the fabrication of evidence by unknown Defendant officers,” and that “no probable cause existed to charge any Plaintiff with anything.”

Howland-Bolton was charged with disorderly conduct. The case was eventually dismissed.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to Michigan Radio’s request for comment.

In response to the lawsuit, Detroit corporation counsel Lawrence Garcia issued this statement:

“Out of 120 days and nights of protest last summer, fewer than a dozen citizen complaints were filed against the Detroit Police Department over they way they handled the demonstrations. None of the filed complaints or events which DPD self-investigated involved ‘legal observers.’ “If people identifying themselves as legal observers have waited a year to file suit and now claim the police mistreated them last summer, the City will investigate and defend the claim.”

The city and Detroit Police face another major lawsuit stemming from alleged abuse of anti-police brutality protesters last summer. A federal judge recently dismissed the city’s counter-lawsuit that alleged those protesters were part of a “civil conspiracy” to injure police officers and damage property, saying the city could not prove any such conspiracy existed.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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