Mar 25, 2022 - News

Federal jury finds Denver violated George Floyd protesters' rights, must pay

Police officers pepper spray a woman next to the Colorado State Capitol
Police officers pepper spray a woman next to the Colorado State Capitol as protests against the death of George Floyd continue for a third night on May 30, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. Photo: Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images

In a precedent-setting verdict, a federal jury decided Friday that the city of Denver must be held accountable for its violent response to 2020 protests following the death of George Floyd.

Driving the news: The city must pay $14 million collectively to 12 protesters who were tear gassed, pepper sprayed and shot with rubber projectiles and chemical weapons.

Why it matters: The trial is the first in the U.S. to challenge a police department's use of force against protesters — and marks the first time a jury has held a city liable for violating protesters' civil rights.

  • To date, Denver has quietly settled most lawsuits outside the courtroom to the tune of more than $1 million, but protesters in this case wanted to hold the city accountable in a public setting.
  • Standing in front of the jury in his closing arguments, attorney Tim Macdonald said, "this is a case that will be watched by … people around the country."

Catch up quick: Over the three-week trial, plaintiffs focused the jury's attention on the injuries suffered by protesters and the indiscriminate use of force by police officers.

  • In their defense, attorneys for Mayor Michael Hancock's administration allowed that mistakes were made, but said the unprecedented reaction was necessary because of injuries sustained by officers and destruction of property.
  • Confidential memos presented in the trial also raised significant questions about the leadership of police chief Paul Pazen.

Between the lines: The case hinged on whether the police department's response — its training, policies and practices — impinged on the civil rights of the protesters.

  • The jury — which deliberated for five hours — decided the city violated the First and Fourth Amendment rights of the protesters, as did Aurora officers who aided Denver's department.
  • The only law enforcement official individually named in the case, former officer Jonathan Christian, was also held liable.

What they're saying: The mayor's office did not immediately respond to questions about Friday's verdict.

  • The ACLU of Colorado represented seven of the 12 protesters. In a statement legal director Mark Silverstein, said "this verdict sends a powerful compelling message not only to Denver Police Department but to police departments across the country."

By the numbers: The protesters asked for $17.5 million in total damages, but the jury settled on a lower number.

  • Nine protesters received $1 million each. Zach Packard, a competitive skateboarder who suffered a fractured skull and jaw, as well as a brain bleed, was given $3 million.
  • Elisabeth Epps, the lead plaintiff, received $1.25 million.

What to watch: Similar lawsuits across the country focused on police encounters with racial justice protesters are likely to find their way to courtrooms in the coming months.

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