The city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has agreed to pay $9.25 million to about 350 people who were injured when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up protests following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis Police custody.
The payout agreement settles a group of four lawsuits against the city, over actions Philadelphia Police officers took to disperse and arrest protesters in between May 31 and June 1, 2020, as protests and riots spread throughout the country following Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020. The group of lawsuits—Weltch, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, Hough, et al. v City of Philadelphia, Smith et al. v City of Philadelphia and Zolitor, et al. v. City of Philadelphia—described police firing tear gas canisters, flashbangs, and rubber bullets at people in West Philadelphia.
Local media reports on May 31, 2020, indicated police were responding to looting and burglaries going on in the city. At the time, Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy described people throwing bricks, rocks, and incendiary Molotov cocktails, resulting in injuries to five officers and fires set to four police vehicles in the 52nd and Market Street area of the city. News crews captured footage of one of the police vehicles on fire in the 52nd and Market Street area.
The lawsuits against the city described officers firing rubber bullets and crowd control munitions indiscriminately at “peaceable protestors and bystanders” in the 52nd and Market Street area.
Images captured from part of the police response on June 1 showed officers dispersing demonstrators who had marched down a section of Interstate 676, bringing traffic on the roadway to a stop. The Hough, et al. v Philadelphia complaint alleged, “The occupants of the vehicles stopped along the expressway showed their support … for the political message expressed by the protest by repeatedly honking their horns and waving to the protesters. Many drivers and passengers got out of their vehicles and momentarily joined the protesters’ chanting.”
Once protesters left I-676, police ordered traffic to resume and, according to the Hough complaint, Philadelphia SWAT officers “could not hide behind the pretext later used by the named Defendants to justify the violence leveled against peaceful protesters.”
“The excessive use of force on hundreds of peaceable protesters who were no longer blocking traffic underscored the intention of the Defendant Jane/Jon Doe SWAT officers, both on 676, as well as on the Parkway and adjacent streets, to physically harm and punish protesters for engaging in a march and demonstration protected by the First Amendment,” the Hough complaint added.
The settlement agreement (pdf) for the four lawsuits states the $9.25 million payout will include a $500,000 community grant to serve the West Philadelphia Community surrounding the 52nd Street Corridor and another $75,000 to the Philadelphia-based non-profit Bread & Roses to administer the community grant.
The settlement also requires the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) to cease its participation in the federal Law Enforcement Support Office/1033 program. The federal program provides local police forces with surplus military equipment from the U.S. Department of Defense, such as armored trucks and firearms.
Under the agreement, the PPD deputy commissioner also has to attend a bi-annual meeting hosted by the Southwest Inspector and open to the public. There, the deputy commissioner will have to report on use of force incidents that have occurred in the prior six-months and take questions from the public.
The agreement stipulates that the defendants are not admitting any wrongdoing in their actions by agreeing to pay out money to the plaintiffs and accept new limitations and requirements to report on police actions to the community.
New York City Settlement
Philadelphia’s decision to settle these four lawsuits comes just weeks after New York City agreed to pay out between $21,500 and $24,000 to about 300 people NYPD officers detained during a clash in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx on June 4, 2020.
Police officials alleged demonstrators began throwing plastic bottles with unknown liquids, and acting in a disorderly manner during the June 4, 2020, demonstration. Police then mass arrested a crowd of hundreds of people in a technique referred to as “kettling.” The police reported recovering hammers, wrenches, gas masks, and “additional items that could be used to cause injuries” among the crowd they kettled and arrested.
In his initial response to the June 4, 2020, protest, then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he had reviewed evidence showing that individuals at the protest were prepared to commit and encourage violence and that he ordered the NYPD to intervene, and said “they did it effectively.”
Human Rights Watch subsequently published a report disputing claims that those arrested had weapons and intended to commit acts of violence and vandalism. The HRW report pointed to a flyer for the event that advised attendees “DON’T CARRY ANYTHING YOU DON’T WANT IN THE HANDS OF THE POLICE (IE: WEAPONS, DRUGS, FAKE IDS, ORGANIZING PLANS OR ADDRESS BOOKS, CASH OVER $100).” The HRW report also contended that weapons police found were never definitively linked to Mott Haven protesters.
“The police have not provided any evidence that they found these items on protesters in Mott Haven or that these items were intended to be used for violent acts, saying only that they were “seized from individuals arrested in the Bronx last night,” the HRW report said.
By October 2020, de Blasio appeared to reverse his stance on the police response to the Mott Haven protest, saying NYPD officers were in the wrong with their handling of the incident.