Lawsuit filed against Richmond Police Department over tear-gas being used on peaceful protesters

Published: Jun. 4, 2020 at 11:30 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - A Civil Rights attorney has filed a lawsuit against the Richmond Police Department after officers fired tear gas at peaceful demonstrators a half hour before the mayor’s mandated curfew went into effect.

Minutes before John Marshall Courthouse on 9th Street in Richmond closed it’s doors Thursday, Civil Rights attorney Tom Roberts rushed into the building with documents he hopes will affect real change for the actions of the Richmond Police Department amidst a wave of racial tension and protests brought out by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

“What distinguishes a nation from a police state is one principle characteristic: The right to be able to speak and protest against the government," Roberts said.

But Roberts says he fears that after Monday’s protests at the Robert E. Lee Monument where peaceful demonstrators were fired at with tear gas canisters by RPD officers, the lines between a nation and a police state are becoming blurred. It’s why his law firm Thomas H. Roberts & Associates is suing the police department for what he describes as an infringement of protestor’s rights by the police.

“What we’re asking for is a declaration by the courts that they violated the first and fourth amendments,” Roberts said.

The plaintiff, Johnathan Arthur, who was a part of those demonstrations is seeking $50,000 in damages and they want the identities of the officers released to the public.

“The reason that the demand is so low is that the principle is more important in this case,” Roberts said.

Not only was Arthur a part of Monday’s protests, but he is also an associate attorney of Thomas H. Roberts and Associates, who he is being represented by.

Roberts says that RPD violated Arthur’s 1st Amendment rights to assemble peacefully and petition the government, as well as his 4th Amendment right to unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement.

"Without warning, they opened fire on us,” Roberts said. “The demonstrators had been peaceful, they had been operating under an RPD escort who had been following us the entire way, and we had assembled around the Lee Memorial to hear people speak about the issues of systemic racism, not the extrajudicial slaughter of our brothers and sisters of color.”

The suit alleges that at 7:32 p.m. Monday, after marching miles from Monroe Park in the city to the Robert E. Lee monument by police escorts, demonstrators were stormed by members of Richmond police not escorting the demonstrators moving down Monument Avenue from the west and establishing a skirmish line along the western portion of the monument traffic circle.

The suit goes on to say that the skirmish line was heavily armed, wearing body armor, masks, with assault-style weaponry and sidearms trained and pointed on the assembly.

Roberts says they are suing all of the officers involved in this case who have been identified in the suit as John/Jane Does 1-X because the officer’s identities have not been released and it is unclear how many officers fired off tear gas.

Arthur, who was a former Marine, says he was appalled at the use of force used against peaceful protestors.

“It is a clear and classic demonstration of the brutality and hyper-violence that the militarized police forces commonly deploy on the American citizenship,” Arthur said. “To see these tactics that we were trained to use overseas in military combat and the equipment we were given, the tactics that we learned turned on the civilian population in violation of the clear constitutional rights provided by amendment one and amendment four is completely unacceptable."

Despite a public apology from both Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief Will Smith, Robert says the only way to hold RPD accountable at this point is by taking them to court.

“The epidemic of police brutality and excessive use of force has to be stopped and the only way to stop it is to get in court and effect them where it hurts, which is their pocket. That will bring about change eventually,” Roberts said.

Tuesday, Stony promised swift action against the officers involved, however, he did not specify what that action would be.

However, Arthur says that with tensions so high at this point a public apology is not enough.

“How many times have we heard public apologies from the people in charge and has that changed anything? It has not," Arthur said. “If the population had faith that their leaders had the political resolve to solve this issue, I do not think we would be seeing the unrest that has rocked this city and this nation.”

NBC12 has reached out to the Richmond Police Department and we are still waiting for a response.

“We’re calling for education, we’re calling for a citizen board for review so that issues of police misconduct in the city of Richmond is not swept under the rug, but is reviewed by an unbiased board,” Roberts said. “Those are solutions only available if they decide to resolve this by sitting down with us and seeking that resolution otherwise a jury will determine the outcome of this case,” Roberts said.

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