OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – The city of Berkeley, its police chief and several police officers must face class action claims they attacked and arrested people who were peacefully protesting the city’s continued participation in a SWAT team training and weapons expo, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in Oakland dismissed some claims against Berkeley, Chief of Police Andrew Greenwood and multiple sergeants and officers involving excessive force, unlawful arrest, false arrest and imprisonment, and violations of state civil rights laws while dispersing people protesting the City Council’s June 2017 decision to continue participating in the training and expo, called Urban Shield.
But White kept alive claims that Greenwood failed to enforce the Berkeley Police Department's rules for policing demonstrations, adopted to address complaints about violent tactics used against Black Lives Matter demonstrators in 2014. White ruled the plaintiffs' evidence of Greenwood’s liability, based on the fact his officers used the same prohibited tactics three years later, was "sufficient to state claims against Chief Greenwood."
In their lawsuit filed this past July, protesters Dylan Cooke, Brooke Anderson and Lewis Williams say the melee started when Cooke stepped onto the stage with fellow protesters at Berkeley's Longfellow Middle School as the City Council meeting was ending to "peacefully" unfurl a banner that said "Stop Urban Shield, End the Militarization of Our Communities."
Cooke claims a sergeant twisted Cooke’s wrist and shoulder in an "excruciating pain hold" before Cooke even touched the banner. During Cooke's subsequent arrest, another officer wrenched Cooke's arm harder according to the lawsuit.
Another plaintiff, Brooke Anderson, claims despite wearing a visible press pass and identifying herself to police as a photojournalist, she was repeatedly hit with batons on her arm where she was wearing a visible brace, and had her camera shoved into her face with batons.
A third plaintiff, 74-year-old Lewis Williams, suffered a laceration to his head when he bent down to pick up his glasses from the floor and an officer allegedly hit him on the top of his head.
Class attorney Rachel Lederman had a mixed reaction to White's ruling Tuesday.
"We are glad that the court agreed with us that Chief Greenwood's failure to enforce BPD's own rules for policing of demonstrations can subject him to liability when that results in officers using needless aggression and violence on demonstrators and journalists," Lederman wrote in an email. "But we're a little disappointed that the court did not think that would be enough to hold the city itself liable."
This is the second time Lederman has sued the Berkeley Police Department over excessive force used against demonstrators. The first suit arose from the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, where police hit a San Francisco photographer on the head.
Berkeley subsequently adopted revised crowd-control and use-of-force reporting policies, Lederman said, which included prohibitions on how batons are used and about how crowds should be disbursed.
Nonetheless, Lederman said, "at this 2017 incident we saw a repeat of exactly the same type of senseless aggression by the police, despite the fact that the chief and other city officials were actually present in the auditorium where this incident began."
Lederman, however, said she was optimistic White would allow the dropped claims to proceed once they're amended, "so that the big picture can be addressed and additional injuries can be averted and people can exercise their First Amendment rights in Berkeley without fear of being clubbed on the head for no reason."
White also kept alive state Bane Act and Ralph Act claims against Berkeley based on allegations two sergeants directly used force on one of the plaintiffs. The city, White noted, didn't argue the sergeants were entitled to immunity.
The Bane Civil Rights Act forbids interference by force or threat of violence with a person's federal or state constitutional or statutory rights, and the Ralph Civil Rights Act forbids acts of violence based on factors like race, religion, age, gender and political party.
Berkeley Deputy City Attorney Lynne Bourgault did not return a request for comment Tuesday. The Berkeley Police Department declined to comment.
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