ACLU is suing Omaha for police misconduct in protests towards Black Lives Matter

Danielle Conrad (left), executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, and Adam Sipple (right), legal director, outside Culxr House on North 24th Street on Monday, October 5, 2020. Photo by the ACLU of Nebraska.

The Nebraska ACLU has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Omaha alleging that its law enforcement agency violated protesters’ constitutional rights by using excessive force, disregarding local laws, and carrying out retaliation and imprisonment.

“This is about accountability,” said Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU in Nebraska. “When the government violates individual civil rights and civil liberties, the courts must intervene to review that power, stop these abuses, and prevent future harm. We cannot accept that the police can monitor themselves. “

The lawsuit announced on Monday is based on the statements of eight people, mainly from the ProBLAC organization. The aim is to recognize the misconduct of the Omaha Police Department in their protests and to change the guidelines to ensure the demonstrators’ right to demonstrate.

“Based on the conduct of the Omaha Police Department and the statements they have made since Farnam Street,” Adam Sipple, legal director of ACLU in Nebraska, told our customers [are] in the unacceptable position of having to choose between their security, and even their freedom, and the exercise of their constitutional right to freedom of expression. “

The lawsuit, which was brought in the United States District Court, came after protesters were arrested on July 25 on the Farnam Street bridge over Highway 75. Police shot pepper balls at protesters and dropped some on the ground. “Bear” Alexander Matthews, a ProBLAC organizer who was arrested that night, said he was walking with a megaphone and told police they were peaceful protesters when cruisers approached on either side of the bridge. The police knelt and kicked him until he was brought to the ground, Matthews said. At that point they pinned it in place to zip it up.

“This is just a reminder,” said Matthew, “that when we protest and when we express our first rights of amendment, we don’t need to compromise our safety … but peaceful street protest should not be met.” with pepper balls and tear gas and excessive force. “

More than 100 protesters were zipped into the Douglas County Detention Center on July 25, where they were exposed to overcrowded cells or solitary confinement, many for longer than 24 hours. Trans protesters were also taken to cells and solitary confinement facilities.

People gather outside the Douglas County Detention Center on July 26, 2020 following a mass arrest on Farnam Street Bridge. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Following these arrests, the ACLU held a clinic at Culxr House to provide legal advice to protesters and to gather stories for the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is also based on clashes between police and protesters at the intersection of streets 72nd and Dodge in late May. There, the police in riot gear used tear gas and pepper balls on demonstrators. Sipple said the organization will file an injunction to end the use of these riot control devices.

OPD has alleged protesters used violence against officials. Mayor Jean Stothert said police-worn body cameras did not show all of the Omaha protesters and that the demonstrations were peaceful. A report of thousands of hours of this footage, which Stothert will post upon receipt, has not yet been released.

The OPD has also arrested protesters for unlawful gathering. Hundreds were arrested earlier this summer for protesting the curfew. Many of these charges were later dropped. Conrad said that only further shows that the police’s actions are not lawfully substantive.

On July 25, the OPD cited ordinances that people should not block traffic on a main road. ProBLAC, which organized the protest, had no permission to walk the streets as you would get for a parade. But proponents said the law was not applied consistently.

Read the full lawsuit here.

In addition, proponents said nothing about the OPD’s behavior, as the mass arrests have assured them that everything will change.

“Subsequent communications from the Omaha Police Department throughout the summer and into this fall show that they have not yet learned the lesson,” Conrad said. “The role of law enforcement in peaceful free expression is to protect the rights of protesters, facilitate freedom of speech and address public safety concerns as they arise. It’s not about calming the language, it’s not about countering screams of justice with militarization and criminalization. “

Chief Todd Schmaderer, who is named as a defendant in the case along with the city and OPD captain Mark Matuza, has changed the reasons for which people can be arrested en masse. However, Conrad said it only changes the way evidence was collected and doesn’t solve the problem.

Both protesters and lawyers said the OPD’s actions against protesters had little to do with the course of the demonstrations. Rather, they claim that the city arrested and harassed the demonstrators for demonstrating.

Riley Wilson was wearing a bright yellow vest labeled “Legal Observer” when he was arrested on the sidewalk of Farnam Street Bridge on July 25th. During his incarceration, Wilson, a law student and veteran, waited for hours before the prison was wrapped up in zip ties.

“When I was inside, I heard a correction officer approve of protesters about the inhumane treatment they had received,” Wilson said. Another correction officer commented, ‘What percentage of them do you think will do this tonight? I bet zero. ‘”

Conrad said that was precisely why this lawsuit was necessary. Everyone has the right to protest. In Omaha, people are actively prevented from having their voices heard, Conrad said.

This is just one step in a multi-faceted strategy to address racial relationships and systemic inequality, Conrad said. Through evidence hearings, this lawsuit will give the ACLU access to more information about the OPD’s response to protests and a “behind the scenes” look at what may have motivated their actions.

Conrad said while this lawsuit is a good step forward, it would be better to have a regulator that could review the police before doing anything to justify a lawsuit. Omaha’s Citizen Complaint Review Board is tasked with overseeing the police force, but sees very few cases and has little or no authority to make changes within the department.

In the past, Stothert was behind Schmaderer’s dealings with the department and protests in the city. In a story for The readerShe said her idea of ​​accountability was to put more trust in the boss’ hands.

Most Omahans are happy with their police force and the government is doing its job, she said. Those who still protest are mostly riding a national wave of anarchist, anti-government, and police rhetoric.

Yes Keen Fox, organizer at Culxr House, said the goal of declaring these injustices is not to divide. Fox recently led an attempt in the Nebraska Democratic Party to denounce Douglas County attorney Don Kleine ‘s handling of the James Scurlock case as “maintaining white supremacy”. Many lifelong Democrats and former party leaders have denounced this condemnation. That and now his complaint are not divisive.

“We were initially divided by racism and white supremacy,” said Fox. “So we call this an acknowledgment of reality and truth.”

Conrad said the ACLU has a good relationship with the OPD, which has achieved top marks on national accreditation and has taken steps to diversify its armed forces while reducing the number of murders in the city. However, this lawsuit may show that the police can and should review their powers.

“What is important when we talk about oversight and accountability and additional power controls is re-centering and returning power to the people,” Conrad said. “That is the heart of democracy. Not appointed leaders. And it’s not enough to have the police yourself. “

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