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March 20, 2023

Philly reaches $9.25 million settlement in lawsuit over police response to 2020 protests

The class action suit arose from the city's handling of civil unrest following George Floyd's murder. Authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators

Philadelphia will pay $9.25 million to resolve a class action lawsuit filed by nearly 350 people who alleged physical and mental harm at the hands of police during the protests that followed the 2020 killing of George Floyd, city officials announced Monday.

The settlement comes after years of negotiations with the plaintiffs, who were involved in a series of tense demonstrations that marked a high point of civil unrest in Philadelphia. The plaintiffs sought damages for the use of "excessive, militaristic" force at protests in West Philly and on Interstate 676. 

During the demonstrations on May 31 and June 1, authorities deployed tear gas on crowds of protesters at both locations. In West Philly, authorities also rolled out armored vehicles along the 52nd Street business corridor and fired rubber bullets at some protesters. 

“In the midst of historic racial justice protests calling out the systemic injustices and anti-Black racism perpetuated by law enforcement, the Philadelphia Police Department did not simply harm and terrorize individual people exercising their right to protest,” said Rachel Kleinman of the Legal Defense Fund, which represented the plaintiffs. “It inflicted wanton violence and devastated a predominately Black community."

As part of the settlement, the LDF said Philadelphia will end its participation in a federal program that arms state and local law enforcement with military weapons and equipment. The city has also committed to meet every six months with the West Philadelphia community to present data around the police department’s use of force.

Additionally, the settlement includes a $500,000 grant to the Bread & Roses Community Fund for free mental health counseling for West Philadelphia residents.

“The pain and trauma caused by a legacy of systemic racism and police brutality against Black and Brown Philadelphians is immeasurable," Mayor Jim Kenney said Monday. "While this is just one step in the direction toward reconciliation, we hope this settlement will provide some healing from the harm experienced by people in their neighborhoods in West Philadelphia and during demonstrations on I-676 in 2020."

George Floyd's murder in the custody of Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020 became a tipping point in much of the U.S. for protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

In Philadelphia, protests that began peacefully on May 30 descended into chaos as rioters torched police vehicles at City Hall and looted surrounding businesses. The activity spread from Center City to other neighborhoods and commercial districts in the ensuing days and nights, creating a volatile mix of legitimate dissent and criminal activity.

Police met protesters and marchers in West Philadelphia, on Interstate 676 and on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in several instances, with munitions such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and batons. Hundreds of protesters were arrested in the span of several days in late May and early June.

The highly publicized June 1 protest on I-676, during which police fired tear gas into the crowd of demonstrators on the highway, led to an apology from Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw over the department's "unjustifiable" use of force, as well as a moratorium on tear gas use by officers. Protesters were seen on video scrambling up a highway embankment to escape plumes of tear gas that afternoon.

One SWAT officer was fired and later charged after video showed him pulling down the masks of kneeling protesters to pepper spray them directly in the face on the highway. Those charges were later dropped, but then reinstated by a municipal court judge.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit said that the tear gas police used on protesters in West Philly also impacted local residents in their homes. 

"Police fired tear gas at our family’s home, leaving my three-year-old son crying and my six-year-old son completely terrified," said Shahidah Mubarak-Hadi, a plaintiff in the case. "The house was enclosed in gas, and we were trapped inside with nowhere to go."

The lawsuit settled Monday resolves four civil cases that arose from the police response to the 2020 protests. The Abolitionist Law Center and the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP were involved in the negotiations with the city.

"The mass demonstrations that took place in Philadelphia and across the nation in response to the murder of George Floyd were unprecedented in scope," Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said. "The Philadelphia Police Department is a learning organization, and we remain dedicated to moving forward in meaningful and productive ways."

The fallout of the protests led the police department to undertake a series of reforms, including an end to the use of tear gas and rubber bullets during protests. The city also has created a police oversight commission for city residents to investigate police conduct and policies.

An independent audit commissioned after the 2020 protests found the city and the police department "were simply not prepared" to handle the scenario of simultaneous protests at multiple locations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plaintiffs in the case settled Monday called monetary compensation an "important step," but said healing will require stronger commitments from the city and police to change the way they exercise power and interact with the public. 

“Instead of protecting us, the Philadelphia Police Department waged war in our streets, tear gassed us, and shot us with rubber bullets," said Amelia Carter, a plaintiff in the case. "By blanketing a community with tear gas, they haphazardly attacked law-abiding citizens in their homes and on their sidewalks. There should be no place for the militarization of a police department that is supposed to serve us."