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Demonstrators assaulted by cops file lawsuit

Four plaintiffs from May, 2020 protest step forward

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Demonstrators assaulted by cops file lawsuit
Officers use pepper spray on civilians after a May 31, 2020 demonstration.

The body camera footage of Boston police violence from the aftermath of a May 31, 2020 demonstration presents a montage of shocking images: a woman with her hands up knocked to the ground by a police officer’s baton, then stepped on by advancing cops. A man, attempting to leave the scene on a scooter, knocked to the ground by an officer’s baton. Officers liberally spraying fleeing demonstrators with pepper spray.

“Start spraying the f—ers,” one officer says as he and his colleagues advance.

The video footage, released in December 2020, sparked outrage among civil rights activists. Now, four of the victims who appear in the video being pepper-sprayed and struck with batons are suing the City of Boston and three officers for use of unreasonable and excessive force and violation of their civil rights.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys Howard Friedman and Mark Loevy-Reyes in U.S. District Court, seeks compensatory damages for the four plaintiffs, none of whom was charged with any crime.

Defense attorney Carl Williams, who obtained the footage in the process of defending four other people charged by police during the demonstration, said the officers’ use of excessive force caught on video is not out of the ordinary for Boston police.

“In any large event, there’s stuff like that going on,” he said. “But there are two things that were different about this one: One, it was a larger event than most, and two, there were body cameras and people looked through the footage.”

In the complaint, Friedman notes that plaintiff Jasmine Huffman had intervened to stop a throng of protesters advancing on an officer as he stood next to a police cruiser just minutes before she was attacked by officer Michael Burke.

“Do not hurt this man,” Huffman yelled at the demonstrators.

But at 10:44 p.m., as Huffman stood near Park Street Station with her hands in the air, Burke struck her in the neck with his baton, knocking her to the ground, according to the complaint. Other officers stepped on her hands as they advanced and demonstrators scattered.

Huffman filed a complaint with the department’s Internal Affairs Department (IAD) and was interviewed in June of 2020. She was told the internal investigation was not complete.

Plaintiff Justin Ackers was attempting to leave the scene of the demonstration on his moped when Burke, approaching from behind, struck him with his baton, knocking him to the ground.

Friedman told the Banner the video footage was key to sorting out what actually happened that evening.

“Mr. Ackers didn’t know what happened to him,” he said. “He suspected it was a police officer, but it wasn’t until he saw the video that he knew for sure.”

Plaintiff Caitlyn Hall was trying to leave the area after police shut down MBTA stations near where the demonstration had happened. As she walked on Washington Street through Downtown Crossing, she saw officer Edward Joseph Nolan about to strike a man who was video recording police with his baton, according to the complaint.

Hall tried to shield the man’s head from Nolan’s blow with her hands, but Nolan instead turned to her and struck her in the face, causing her to puncture her lip with her teeth. She fell to the ground, striking her head and losing consciousness.

The fourth plaintiff, disabled veteran Benjamin Chambers-Maher, was walking on Tremont Street between Boylston and Stuart Streets when he was approached by officer Michael J. McManus, according to the complaint. As Chambers-Maher backed away from officers, McManus sprayed him in the face twice.

“There was no reason to spray Mr. Chambers-Maher either time,” the complaint reads.

McManus also used his police bicycle to strike Chambers-Maher in the legs.

“Other unknown Boston police officers were on the scene and had the ability to intervene to prevent the unlawful use of force, but did not do so,” the complaint reads.

Attorney Friedman points out that when Williams requested from the City of Boston use-of-force reports that officers are required to file under departmental guidelines when they use batons, pepper spray or other weapons on the public, the city responded that the department had no such records.

“Allowing police officers to use force including batons, OC spray and fists without enforcing the requirement that the officers prepare a use of force report explaining the reason force was used sends a message to officers that they can use force without being concerned that their actions will be reviewed by their supervisors,” the complaint reads. “This action expressly abdicated the BPD’s responsibility to supervise police officers.”

Friedman commented, “The idea of requiring use of force reports when weapons are used is to review whether it is warranted. When you use force, you have to have a reason.”

The complaint further alleges that BPD officials “expressly permitted” its officers to use batons to strike people without cause, that they coordinated with the MBTA to prevent people from leaving the area of the demonstration by closing T stations, denying Uber and Lyft drivers access to the area, and assaulting people who attempted to leave.

“They were working at cross-purposes,” Friedman said of the police. “They were pushing protestors in one direction, while other officers were pushing them in the other.”

The complaint also alleges that the City of Boston “has a policy or custom of indifference to misconduct by Boston Police officers by failing to properly investigate complaints of misconduct and to discipline officers who used unreasonable or excessive force.”

Although Huffman and Chambers-Maher filed complaints promptly after the incident and were interviewed, and despite the video evidence, more than a year later the department has not completed investigations into their cases.

The complaint alleges that the department’s delays of two years or more in IAD investigations “allows misconduct to go unpunished, since the civilian complainants often cannot be found or have lost interest in the complaint.”

In the case of plaintiff Caitlyn Hall, when she called IAD to file a complaint, she was erroneously told she could only file a complaint in person at a BPD station.

“Ms. Hall did not want to go to a police station,” the complaint reads. “This false information discouraged her from filing a complaint.”

Black Lives Matter protest, Boston police violence, George Floyd protest, police misconduct