(CN) – Four citizens of Flint, Michigan, filed a federal lawsuit Thursday claiming they were wrongfully arrested at a town hall meeting last year about the city’s water-contamination crisis.
Leah and Anthony Palladeno Jr., Susan Whalen and Abel Delgado sued the city, Police Chief Timothy Johnson and five police officers in Detroit federal court, alleging free-speech violations, unreasonable seizure, unlawful arrest, excessive force, assault and battery. They are represented by Bonsitu Kitaba-Gaviglio and other attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan.
Flint’s public-health crisis began when the city switched water sources between April 2014 and October 2015.
During the switch from the Detroit water supply to the Karegnondi Water Authority, or KWA, Flint used water from the Flint River and its own water treatment plant. The city also used old, decaying lead pipes – leading to widespread lead contamination among residents.
Flint held a town hall meeting on April 20, 2017, at House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church to discuss the future of the city’s drinking water supply.
According to the plaintiffs, police officers and security guards in military gear and bulletproof vests stood outside the door, denying entry to any man who objected to removing his hat before entering the church.
Chief Johnson also issued a warning at the outset of the meeting, according to the lawsuit.
“Don’t be in here trying to disrupt this meeting, because if you do I’m going to escort you out, and I’m only going to take you to the back door and then you’re going to jail. I’m not going to play with nobody tonight,” the chief allegedly said.
The plaintiffs claim attendees became frustrated over the forced adherence to church rules and Mayor Karen Weaver, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, “instructed the Flint police to arrest alleged rule breakers.”
“Flint police officers executed Chief Johnson’s orders and began arresting attendees when they expressed their frustration to city officials about the public meeting being held in a religious institution where religious rules were enforced by the police,” the complaint states.
The Palladenos claim they were “forcefully escorted” out of the meeting. When Leah told a city council member that the meeting was “bullshit,” officers grabbed her and slammed her head on a desk repeatedly, the lawsuit states.
Anthony went to his car after his wife was placed in the police van. However, another officer, defendant Kristopher Jones, arrested him there without explanation, according to the complaint.
Whalen, Delgado and two other citizens were arrested outside the church “for expressing their disapproval of the meeting and the arrests,” the lawsuit states.
Delgado witnessed Leah’s arrest, and was also allegedly arrested after calling the officers “pigs” and “fucking fascists.”
When Whalen tried to videotape Leah’s arrest, she claims Officer Bobby Fowlkes, another defendant in the lawsuit, “slammed her body on the metal bar between the doors” and ejected her from the church.
The plaintiffs claim they did not disrupt the meeting and were merely exercising their First Amendment rights.
The six arrestees spent the night in jail, the complaint states, but the Genesee County Prosecutor declined to press criminal charges.
In addition to their civil rights claims, the plaintiffs seek an injunction stopping the city from enforcing religious rules at public meetings.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Kitaba-Gaviglio with the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement that her clients at the town hall meeting “were met with heavily armed police officers who demanded that they abide by the church’s etiquette rules.”
“Not only were Flint police’s extreme tactics unjustified and unconstitutional, they also added insult to injury in the wake of the aftermath of the water crisis,” she said. “The First Amendment protects the right of these residents to engage in robust and uninhibited debate on public issues. Whether it’s city hall or a church sanctuary, no person should be brutalized by the police while attending a public meeting.”
The mayor’s office did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Flint’s water supply was found to be contaminated in 2014. According to the lawsuit, Mayor Weaver decided one month before the town hall meeting to stay connected to Detroit’s water supply instead of trying to use the problematic Flint River again.