A federal court jury Friday awarded $14 million to a dozen activists who sued Denver police, claiming excessive force was used against peaceful protesters during racial injustice demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in 2020.
The city of Denver has previously settled several civil complaints stemming from the police response to the Floyd protests, but the lawsuit decided Friday was the first such case in the nation to go to trial, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents several of the plaintiffs.
The verdict, delivered after about three hours of jury deliberations, capped a three-week trial in U.S. District Court in Denver.
The lawsuit, filed in June 2020, led a federal judge to issue a temporary injunction barring police in Denver from using tear gas, plastic bullets, flash-bang grenades and other “less-than-lethal” force unless approved by a senior officer in response to specific acts of violence.
The death of Floyd, an unarmed Black man, during his arrest in Minneapolis by a white officer kneeling on his neck, ignited a wave of protests against police brutality and racial injustice in the summer of 2020 in cities across the country, including Denver.
While the lawsuit brought by Denver activists acknowledged that some protesters engaged in lawless behavior, it said the vast majority were peaceful and accused police of engaging in heavy-handed riot-control tactics without issuing clear warnings and orders to disperse.
The largest individual award, $3 million, went to Zachary Packard, who was struck in the head by a projectile fired from a police shotgun. He suffered a broken jaw and skull, two fractured spinal discs and bleeding in his brain, the lawsuit said.
“There is a widespread custom and practice of violence and aggression against protesters,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Tim Macdonald told jurors.
A lawyer defending the city, Lindsay Jordan, argued that police had to make split-second decisions in a chaotic situation. Some protesters, Jordan said, started fires and broke windows in the state Supreme Court building and a nearby museum.
“When justifiable anger turns to violence and destruction, it’s the responsibility of police to intervene as a matter of public safety,” she said.
In a statement issued following the verdict, the city’s Department of Public Safety, which oversees the police department, said officers had made mistakes, but the protests were “unprecedented” in scope.
“The city had never seen that level of sustained violence and destruction before,” the statement said.
The city has already implemented policy changes in the aftermath of the protests, the department said, including enhanced officer training for crowd management, eliminating the use of some “less-than-lethal” weapons and new guidelines for the use of pepper spray.