Jury awards $14 million to protesters injured by Denver police during 2020 demonstrations

A jury found that Denver police officers violated protesters’ rights during the massive 2020 demonstrations against police brutality and awarded 12 protesters a total of $14 million in compensation after a three-week trial.

The jury found that Denver failed to properly train its officers and that the lack of training led to police violating the 12 plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

The civil trial in the U.S. District Court of Colorado is likely the first in the U.S. connected to police conduct during the 2020 protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Federal civil rights lawsuits rarely go to trial and are often settled. Denver officials already have settled several protest-related lawsuits and paid more than $1.3 million to injured demonstrators.

Attorneys for the protesters argued that police officers violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights by shooting them with pepper balls and sponge rounds, and subjecting them to chemical munitions, even though the plaintiffs were protesting peacefully.

The city failed to properly train and supervise the officers, which led to the plaintiffs’ injuries, the attorneys said. The injuries included a skull fractured by a less-lethal projectile, pepper spray used on a protesters’ eyes at close range and bruises and cuts from other projectiles.

Attorneys for the city failed to show any evidence that the 12 plaintiffs were acting violently or destroying property when they were injured, the protesters’ attorneys said. At the end of the trial, the attorneys asked the jury to award $17.5 million in damages.

“You have the ability to send a message to the Denver police department and to departments across the country,” protesters’ attorney Tim Macdonald told the jury in his closing argument.

Attorneys for the city, however, argued that officers were responding to massive, unexpected and unprecedented demonstrations and used the less-lethal weapons to protect property and to deal with people in the crowd who were throwing projectiles at police. They urged the jury to consider the totality of the chaos.

Officers made mistakes during the chaotic protests, Lindsay Jordan, of the Denver City Attorney’s Office, said during her closing arguments Friday.

“But mistakes do not equal constitutional violations,” she said.

Protests began May 28, 2020, in Denver and lasted for at least two weeks as thousands of demonstrators poured into the city’s center and officers in riot gear squared off against them. Hundreds of protesters were injured by chemical munitions or less-lethal projectiles, more than 70 officers suffered injuries and property damage exceeded $5 million.

City officials have disciplined three officers for using inappropriate force against peaceful protesters. Nobody in police leadership has faced formal discipline for how the department handled the protests

A string of high-ranking police officers and the city’s former police watchdog took the stand during the trial to answer questions about the police department’s response. Denver police officers and leaders who took the stand said it was difficult to discern who in the crowd was throwing projectiles or causing property damage. Extracting the people acting violently was dangerous and difficult, they said.

“In 40 years I never saw such anger against police,” Patrick Phelan, the now-retired Denver police commander who oversaw protest response, said during his trial testimony.

Testimony from former independent monitor Nick Mitchell and memos from his investigation into the police response showed that even some inside the department disagreed with how police leadership handled the mayhem. A former Seattle police chief testifying as an expert on behalf of plaintiffs said evidence he reviewed showed officers using less-lethal weapons indiscriminately.

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