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Oakland Groups Sue City, Police Chief Over Forceful Response to Black Lives Matter Protests

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Police clash with protesters in Downtown Oakland on May 29, 2020 during a protest over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. (Beth Laberge/KQED)

The city of Oakland, its interim police chief and several Oakland Police Department officers are facing a class-action lawsuit over their handling of protests that erupted in late May in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

A coalition of social justice groups filed the suit Thursday night, alleging some OPD officers unlawfully attacked Black Lives Matter protesters.

The plaintiffs, including some of the demonstrators, the Anti Police-Terror Project and the Community READY Corps, are seeking monetary compensation for injuries sustained during the protests. They’re also requesting an injunction that would ban Oakland police from using crowd control weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades.

The lawsuit alleges OPD knowingly broke their own court-ordered crowd control policies, which stipulate that physical force be used only as a last resort. It states that protesters were tear gassed, hit directly by rubber bullets and burned by flash-bang grenades while they were walking alway from a peaceful demonstration in downtown Oakland on June 1, well before the city's 8 p.m. curfew.

But the burden of proof to meet all of the claims made in the complaint will be hard to reach, said Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford University.


“If you want to get damages you have to get past qualified immunity,” Weisberg said, referring to a controversial federal legal doctrine that largely shields police officers from being held personally liable if their actions do not violate a “clearly established” law. “The officers had to be thinking to themselves, ‘It is perfectly obvious to us that what we are doing is illegal.’ That has a subjective layer that is hard to meet.”

Weisberg said he doesn’t expect the complaint to reach a jury trial, but said it could amplify pressure on the city and OPD to create meaningful reforms.

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“It's possible that this lawsuit, even if it doesn't lead to a trial victory or a very successful settlement ... could help provoke the city into some very constructive action,” he said.

The lawsuit follows outcry from some city officials and public health experts over OPD’s use of tear gas on protesters, which can cause lung damage and increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.

In an open letter published Thursday, Interim Oakland Police Chief Susan Manheimer said the department will review misconduct complaints against officers, a process that could take up to six months to complete.

“Six months is too long.” said Walter Riley, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs. “It’s not like they haven’t been told by the courts and other litigation what the problem is.”

The Oakland City Attorney declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

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