Crime, Law and Justice

Judge says Columbus police ran 'amok' against protesters, restricts use of force

A police officer uses pepper spray
A police officer uses pepper spray against protesters on May 28, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio.
Matthew Hatcher | Getty Images 2020

A federal judge has ordered police in Columbus, Ohio, to stop using force including tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets against nonviolent protesters, ruling that officers ran "amok" during last summer's protests over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Judge Algenon Marbley of the Southern District of Ohio described the actions of the Columbus police as "the sad tale of officers, clothed with the awesome power of the state, run amok."

He opened his 88-page opinion with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: "But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights."

Marbley sided with the 26 plaintiffs who protested last summer, ruling that "unfortunately, some of the members of the Columbus Police Department had no regard for the rights secured by this bedrock principle of American democracy." Columbus police used force "indiscriminately" and without provocation during the widespread protests last May and June, he wrote.

In addition to alleging extreme nonlethal tactics used by police on otherwise nonviolent protesters, the lawsuit also accused police of collective punishment — responding to a single protester "who threw a water bottle, harassed or taunted an officer" by indiscriminately pepper-spraying or tear-gassing the whole group, according to Marbley. "What is more, [officers] sometimes failed to give audible warnings or adequate time to disperse before resorting to less-lethal force," the judge wrote.

One of the plaintiffs was struck by a projectile at the same time police ordered protesters to disperse, video shows, according to the injunction. "In other words, there was no time for protestors to react," Marbley said. A 31-year-old plaintiff's knee was shattered "into many little pieces" and he was unable to walk for five months, according to the judge's order. The man still cannot walk for more than a half-mile without "significant pain."

"Multiple witnesses testified to their physical and emotional injuries suffered at the hands of CPD officers while exercising their fundamental rights to assemble and protest" last year, the judge wrote.

According to the injunction, Columbus officers are banned from using those methods of "non-lethal force" against nonviolent protesters including those who are chanting, verbally confronting police and occupying streets. That includes body slams, flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets, batons and shoving.

NPR's efforts to reach the Columbus Police Department for a comment were unsuccessful.

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