Class action suit filed against Richmond Police over tear-gassing of protesters

By: - June 19, 2020 12:01 am

A Richmond police officer surveys damage outside the department’s headquarters, where protesters broke windows and lit a police car on fire last month. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A federal class action lawsuit has been filed against the Richmond Police Department on behalf of protesters who were tear-gassed at the Robert E. Lee Monument more than 20 minutes ahead of an 8 p.m. curfew on June 1. 

Filed Tuesday by Richmond attorney Tom Roberts, the action follows a June 4 lawsuit against RPD on behalf of Jonathan Arthur, an associate of Roberts’ firm, who was pepper sprayed twice during the demonstration, according to the suit. 

Both suits seek compensatory damages for the violation of protesters’ First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights.

“It was intentional actions by the police department to kill the speech of those who voiced their opinions,” Roberts said. “Those opinions, whether they agreed with them or not, are protected by the First Amendment and were violated.” 

The action names Jarrod Blackwood, Megan Blackwood, Ryan Tagg, Christopher Gayler and Keenan Angel, all Richmond residents, as the plaintiffs who will represent two subclasses of protesters. 

Subclass 1 is for those whose freedom of speech was violated and is represented by Jarrod and Megan Blackwood, who attended the demonstration and retreated before suffering “adverse physical contact.”

Subclass 2, represented by Tagg, Gayler and Angel, is for individuals that experienced “unwanted harmful or offensive physical contact” with Richmond police officers, according to the suit. 

The five “lead plaintiffs” have filed suit for their own claims against Richmond police officers, as well. 

“That’s the beauty and simplicity of a class action — it ropes in all of the plaintiffs,” Roberts said. “Once you set up the recovery, then people simply file claims and claims are administered under the class action.”

According to the suit, Richmond police officers appeared at approximately 7:31 p.m. “without provocation or warning” in a “convoy of vehicle” towards Lee Circle, establishing a “skirmish line” of police officers along the northwestern side of the monument. 

“This skirmish line was heavily armed and armored, wearing body armor and masks, and most had AR-style assault weapons and their side-arms,” the suit reads. 

Minutes later, a second armored vehicle with additional police officers arrived on the scene, and with it, a Richmond police officer “threw tear-gas canister into the assembly, quickly followed by other officers” as many protesters were kneeling with their hands in the air chanting “hands up, don’t shoot,” according to the suit. 

“It is unacceptable that men and women, gathering peacefully to protest police misconduct, were assaulted in this way by police,” said Andrew Bodoh, co-counsel on the suit. 

The defendants, only referred to as Does 1-X, are all members of the RPD’s “skirmish line.” The suit will therefore first identify the officers involved and bring them into the action as named defendants. 

The police department is represented by Richmond attorney William K. Shipman. Shipman did not respond to a request for comment. 

“We are 99.99 percent guaranteed that we will be able to identify the officers that were involved,” Roberts said, noting a subpoena has already been issued to identify the officers when the first suit was filed on June 4. 

“It will take more work to identify what each particular officer did that evening,” he said. 

Once the defendants are identified and the court certifies the plaintiffs’ class, Roberts and Bodoh will begin an in-depth discovery “behind the blue-wall” to provide transparency on the details of what transpired on June 1. 

The police department initially said that it was necessary to tear gas the demonstrators in order to get police officers to safety. They corrected that about two hours later with a tweet saying the action was “unwarranted” with the promise to discipline the officers involved. 

Mayor Levar Stoney condemned the action, saying that “it should not have happened” and that the officers would be punished.

“People will be held accountable,” Stoney said at a June 2 press conference outside of Richmond City Hall.

That accountability came two weeks later. On June 16, Stoney said he had requested and accepted the resignation of Richmond Police Chief William Smith following two nights of protests that saw police use gas and rubber bullets outside the city’s police headquarters.

Roberts said that the uncertainty regarding Smith’s direct involvement with the incident on June 1 and the continued use of tear gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters are the “biggest reasons” for filing these lawsuits. 

“People are saying the police apologized so why are you suing? The short answer is an apology is cheap,” Roberts said. “This is a chance for the judiciary to keep the executive branch in check.”

Gene Lepley, public affair director of RPD, said that the police department “does not comment on lawsuits” in an email. 

Once the court certifies the class action, a public notice will be published informing those who were protesting at the Lee statue on June 1 that they are plaintiffs in this case, Roberts said. 

The June 4 lawsuit has been assigned to Judge David J. Novak of the Eastern District Court. 

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct an error in the class action lawsuit complaint. Jarrod and Megan Blackwood did not bring their 12-year-old son to the protest.

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