Previously anonymous police officers named in ACLU suit for J20 abuses
In a new filing, amending a pending lawsuit against Washington DC’s Metropolitan Police Department, the ACLU named 27 police officers who it says violated the constitutional rights of several citizens as they cordoned off and arrested more than 200 people on Inauguration Day. The officers had previously been identified only as John or Jane Doe. The amended suit also adds two additional plaintiffs to the four already engaged in the suit: a mother and her 10-year-old son who were exposed to pepper spray.
“The first thing to understand about who we named today is that unlike the United States Attorney’s office who decided to charge criminally everyone who was nearby where vandalism occurred [during the protests], our goal was to name only [police officers] that we had some specific reason to believe had committed wrongdoing,” said Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of the District of Columbia.
Michelman says the ACLU was able to figure out who these officers were by talking to their clients, using video and photographs taken that day, and reviewing the testimony of officers during the first criminal trial against people arrested that day.
The allegations against police officials extend to commanders who issued orders, such as Assistant Chief Lamar Greene and Commander Keith Deville—who testified in the criminal trials that he did not try to distinguish between demonstrators and rioters when he ordered officers to form a “kettle.”
Deville, the suit says, “told his officers: ‘anytime you need pepper [spray], use it.’” The officers complied. One told his supervisor that police had been “extremely wild” with their use of pepper spray. Deville later authorized the use of stingball grenades and other weapons. Police Chief Peter Newsham, who was in the command center, was already named in the suit.
Democracy in Crisis and the Real News obtained a detailed list of weapons deployed by MPD that day, including more than 70 of these stingball grenades, which emit both rubber pellets and chemical irritants.
Officer Daniel Thau is identified in the suit as throwing a stingball grenade into the kettle, where the citizens had already been detained.
A number of individual officers are being sued for the indiscriminate use of weapons. “At approximately 1:45 p.m., suddenly and without warning or a dispersal order, Defendants … began to pepper-spray the people outside the kettle,” the complaint reads.
The complaint argues that the spraying of civilians was carried out on the orders of defendants Lt. Michael Whiteside and Sgt. Sean Hill. The suit further alleges that Officer Michael Murphy sprayed photojournalist Shay Horse without warning or provocation.
Sgt. Anthony Alioto is named as one of the officers who established the barricade—his body camera footage, released in a redacted form by Democracy in Crisis, was part of the evidence in the criminal proceedings and shows him indiscriminately using pepper spray.
The complaint alleges these officers violated First, Fourth, and Fifth amendment rights.
The criminal charges against those arrested in the kettle that day rest on the idea that a decision was made to wear identical clothing and cover their faces in order to remain anonymous, so there has been some irony in the fact that the officers involved in alleged misconduct have remained unidentified. “Many of the officers were masked; wearing all black and helmets so you couldn’t tell them apart,” Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, one of the new plaintiffs in the case, wrote on Medium.
Gwen Frisbie-Fulton and her son, who was 10 at the time and is identified only as A.S., are now plaintiffs in the suit. Their story first came to light when she sent a letter to be read at the sentencing of Dane Powell, who pled guilty to felony rioting and felony assault on a police officer and served four months in prison.
Frisbie-Fulton said she did not know Powell but that he rescued her and her child after they had been hit by police pepper spray. The same account plays out in the suit and can be seen on video.
“Defendants … moved forward down 12th Street NW, advancing on the retreating crowd, continuing to deploy pepper spray indiscriminately on people in the crowd,” the complaint reads. “As soon as Ms. Frisbie-Fulton saw the pepper-spraying begin, she feared for A.S.’s safety and her own and so told to A.S. that it was time to go. A.S. hopped down from the street sign he had been holding onto and began to hurry ahead of his mother west on L Street NW away from the intersection where the officers were pepper-spraying the crowd.”
Then, according to the suit, without warning or provocation, “a line of police officers, including Ofcr. Joseph Masci and Ofcr. Aulio Angulo, rushed forward. Ofcrs. Masci and Angulo collided with A.S., knocking him to the ground. A.S. felt his ribs scrape against the curb of the sidewalk as he hit the ground.”
Frisbie-Fulton tried to protect her son by throwing herself on top of him. “Scared and confused why he had been assaulted while trying to flee, A.S. began to cry. From his mother’s arms at the bottom of the pile of people, he hoped the officers would hear him and permit them to leave,” the suit reads.
She finally managed to pick up her sobbing son and run. When she got to a barricade and asked an officer if they could leave, the “officer responded that she could not and chastised Ms. Frisbie-Fulton, ‘You shouldn’t have come here with your child.’”
On the video you can see bystanders trying to shield the mother and child from pepper spray and screaming “you maced a child” as they flee. When she could not carry him anymore due to inhaled pepper spray, Powell grabbed the child, whose Star Wars hat had been soaked in pepper spray. “He began to cough uncontrollably.”
People were screaming out for medics. During the criminal trial, two individual medics were being charged with rioting—and acquitted on all charges. No police officers or other officials responded to help the wounded child.
One officer whose actions are described in the suit remains unidentified. The ACLU’s Michelman says that many of the complaints have a one-year statute of limitations, whereas the allegations against the remaining John Doe can be filed for up to three years.
The still-anonymous officer is alleged to have “pushed his finger into” a journalist’s rectum and otherwise assaulted him as the arrests were being processed.
MPD refused to comment for this story, citing a policy against commenting on pending litigation.