$40 Million Lawsuit Slams Ferguson Police Actions During Recent Protests
By Catherine E. Shoichet and AnneClaire Stapleton
(CNN) — In a $40 million federal lawsuit, five people arrested recently in Ferguson, Missouri, accuse police of using “wanton and excessive force” and treating U.S. citizens “as if they were war combatants.”
A complaint filed Thursday alleges that police officers from Ferguson and St. Louis County used unnecessary force and made unjustified arrests as they cracked down on protests after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown earlier this month.
The lawsuit lists Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, Ferguson officer Justin Cosma, several unnamed officers and the city and county governments as defendants. They did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A St. Louis County police spokesman declined to comment, referring inquiries to the county counselor’s office.
The suit — which includes accusations of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent supervision, and assault and battery — details circumstances allegedly surrounding several arrests between August 11-13:
— Tracey White was about to buy an ice cream sundae at McDonald’s when officers “in what appeared to be army uniforms, carrying rifles and sticks and wearing helmets” entered and ordered her to leave, according to the lawsuit. She was told to shut up, thrown to the ground and handcuffed after criticizing officers for the way they were treating her son, the lawsuit claims.
— Dewayne Matthews was walking to his mother’s house when a group of officers in military uniforms shot rubber bullets at him, the lawsuit alleges. He fell into a creek or sewer, the suit says, where officers “pounced on him, slammed his face into the concrete, and pushed his head into the water to the point that he felt he was going to be drowned.”
— Kerry White was shooting footage and holding his camera out his car window when an officer snatched his camera, “took out his memory card and threw it to the ground,” the lawsuit says.
— Damon Coleman and Theophilus Green were peacefully protesting, the lawsuit says, when police in riot gear fired tear gas and what appeared to be stun grenades in their direction, then “hurled racial epithets at them, while punching and kicking them the entire time.”
CNN has not independently confirmed details of the arrests.
Police tactics to calm the crowds drew sharp criticism, including a rebuke from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
“At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message,” Holder said as the protests unfolded.
As criticism of police tactics mounted, Gov. Jay Nixon Missouri tapped State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson to head up security in Ferguson on August 14.
This week, Johnson said police were scaling back their efforts in Ferguson now that the situation has cooled.
Belmar, the St. Louis County Police Chief, told reporters on Wednesday that he doesn’t regret his agency’s decisions to fire tear gas at protesters. That approach, he said, was much better than using nightsticks or dogs.
Even though President Barack Obama has called for a review of military equipment sales to local police deparments in light of the clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Belmar said that such equipment is often necessary.
“I never envisioned a day that we would ever see that kind of equipment used against protesters,” he said. “But I also never imagined a day in 28 years when we would see that kind of criminal activity spin out of peaceful demonstrations.”