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Class-action federal civil rights suit filed against Rochester police and city officials alleging racism and excessive force

By Alec Snyder and Taylor Romine, CNN

Updated: Tue, 06 Apr 2021 21:29:48 GMT

Source: CNN

A class-action civil lawsuit filed in federal court on Monday accuses the Rochester, New York, Police Department (RPD) of racist practices and a "pattern and practice of using excessive force."

The plaintiffs include individuals who claim they were subjected to excessive force and/or falsely arrested during protests over the death of Daniel Prude, who died in police custody in March 2020. They say officers responded with "the use of extreme violence and militarized police tactics," which included batons, tear gas, flash-bang grenades, armored vehicles and police dogs, the suit said.

Lore McSpadden-Walker was with a group of protesters when they encountered police. McSpadden-Walker claimed to be subjected to excessive force and falsely arrested. Despite holding their hands in the air, McSpadden-Walker claims an officer "violently seized" them and "slammed their shoulder to the ground," the filing states.

Another plaintiff, Reynaldo DeGuzman, a professional photojournalist, claims he was "subjected to excessive force" for "legally video recording and documenting the violent police response to peaceful protesters" during several protests in May and September. According to the lawsuit, an RPD officer "shot DeGuzman in the neck with a pepper ball from approximately five feet away." A third involved Emily Good, a resident and Legal Observer with the National Lawyers Guild Rochester, who claims she was targeted for "documenting the violent police response to peaceful protesters." Good also claims RPD officers shot her with pepper balls and exposed her to tear gas, according to the filing.

Dynasty Buggs, a plaintiff who is suing the RPD for an incident unrelated to Prude's death or the subsequent protests, claimed RPD pepper-sprayed her "during a routine traffic stop" in December 2019. Other plaintiffs include Free the People Rochester, an activist group, and National Lawyers Guild Rochester.

In addition to RPD and some of its officers, the city of Rochester, its mayor, and other area law enforcement agencies are named as defendants in the complaint.

The death of Daniel Prude in RPD custody in March 2020 -- which was not heavily publicized until six months later, in September 2020 -- led to several protests in September, and the RPD response to them was the tipping point in filing the suit, documents filed in the US Western District of New York court show.

Police dash and body camera footage, released to the public months after the incident, showed officers handcuffing a naked Prude and covering his head with a "spit sock" after he claimed he had the coronavirus and was spitting. The officers held him and pushed him to the ground in a prone position, according to the video, which also showed officers kneeling on Prude, who died a week later from traumatic brain damage.

In levying its allegations, the plaintiffs allege, "The RPD has engaged in a pattern of policing of using force, conducting stops, and engaging in other law enforcement actions disproportionately against people of color." The lawsuit cites a PhD dissertation by Charles LoFaso that analyzed more than 3,000 RPD use-of-force reports between 2011 and 2016. It concluded, "The frequency and severity of force are higher in neighborhoods with larger percentages of Black and Hispanic residents." LoFaso's findings state that 78.3 percent of use-of-force incidents in Rochester occurred to residents in those demographics.

The plaintiffs also accuse Rochester city officials of being indifferent to the "pervasive problem of racism," citing "more than fifty incidents of RPD officers using excessive force against people of color" and naming 17 people, including Prude, who "were killed as a result of their encounters with the RPD."

Plaintiffs in the case are seeking a set of reforms in addition to compensatory and punitive damages, including an independent monitor to manage police reforms, additional protections against protesters' alleged violation of First Amendment-protected protest, and declare previous actions taken by police in the suit as unconstitutional.

Katie McCarthy, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, told CNN "it's too early to say" on what the scope of the requested damages may look like, but she said there was no specific amount for a monetary award specified as they are unsure if more cases will be added.

City responds to lawsuit

The RPD deferred to a comment from Mayor Lovely Warren's office, while the Rochester Police Locust Club, the union which represents RPD officers, declined to comment.

In a Monday release, Rochester City Communications Director Justin Roj cited recent reforms taken by the city and the department, including the mayor's ability to fire officers with cause, enforcing the use of body-worn cameras and a revised protest response plan.

"Mayor Warren welcomes a review by the United States Department of Justice," Roj said. "In fact, in September of last year, Mayor Warren formally called upon them to conduct a thorough investigation of the Rochester Police Department and to offer reforms to address any and all civil rights violations that might be found."

"Everyone wants a Rochester that encompasses safer more vibrant neighborhoods, more jobs and greater educational opportunities; and promoting a police department that works with its citizens leads to that goal," he continued.


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