Jury awards $14 million to George Floyd protesters in Denver

DENVER — A jury found Friday that police used excessive force against protesters and violated their constitutional rights at demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd two years ago, and ordered the city to pay a total of 14 to a group of 12 people who had complained million dollars in damages.

The jury of two men and six women, mostly white and from the Colorado area, returned their verdict after about four hours of deliberation. The verdict was followed by three weeks of testimony and evidence, including police and protester videos of incidents.

The lawyers involved believed it was the first trial in a lawsuit questioning officers’ tactics during the 2020 protests that erupted across the country over the police killing of Floyd and other black people.

The plaintive protesters were shot at or hit with everything from pepper spray to a Kevlar bag filled with lead shot fired from a shotgun. Zach Packard, who was hit in the head by the shotgun and ended up in intensive care, received the most damage – $3 million.

One of the protesters’ attorneys, Timothy Macdonald, had urged the jury to send a message to police in Denver and elsewhere, holding the city liable during closing arguments.

“Hopefully the police departments will take that as a jury of ordinary people taking these rights very seriously,” he said after the verdict.

Elisabeth Epps, a lawyer and activist who was one of the suing protesters, said lawyers from the city she loves gaslighted the protesters during the trial and questioned their account of what happened. A Denver attorney once called her a “professional protester” after testifying that she had attended protests since childhood and received training in how to respond to tear gas. She got emotional as she spoke about what it meant to be on the jury’s side with the protesters.

“It feels like being seen,” Epps said.

The protesters said the police action violated their rights to freedom of expression and the right to be protected from undue force. The jury found 11 of the demonstrators to have violated both rights and the other to have violated only freedom of expression. The protesters claimed Denver was liable through its policies for police actions, including the fact that officers were given wide discretion in using “less lethal” devices, officers were not trained to use them, and they were not required to using their body-worn cameras during police protests against indiscriminate use of force.

During the trial, Denver admitted that mistakes were made in the protests that were unprecedented in their size, duration, and the level of violence and destruction. More than 80 officers were injured when protesters hurled rocks, water bottles and canned goods at them, and the state capitol, the center of the protests, suffered $1.1 million in damage, according to the city. Lawyers for the complaining demonstrators emphasized that they were not accused of having been violent themselves.

One of Denver’s attorneys, Lindsay Jordan, told jurors that the city had planned a major crowd control training session because of the upcoming spring 2020 presidential election, but that it was canceled because of COVID-19. She stressed that mistakes made by officials during the protests do not automatically equate to violations of the constitution, noting that thousands of people have returned to exercise their right to freedom of expression despite the violence used by police during the five-day demonstrations .

“The violence and destruction that took place in the community required an intervention,” she said.

According to the department, five Denver police officers were disciplined for their actions during the protests. Another officer, who was new and still on parole, was fired during the protests after posting a photo of himself and others in tactical gear on social media with the comment “Let’s start a riot.”

Aggressive responses by officers to people protesting police brutality across the country have led to financial settlements, the departure of police chiefs and criminal charges.

In Austin, Texas, officers have agreed to pay over $13 million to people injured in protests in May 2020 and 19 officers have been charged over their actions against protesters. Last month, two Dallas police officers were charged with injuring protesters after they fired less-lethal ammunition.

In 2021, however, a federal judge dismissed most lawsuits by activists and civil rights groups over police forcibly removing protesters before then-President Donald Trump went to a church near the White House for a photo op.

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Justin Scacco

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