Baltimore police have agreed to change policies regarding protests after a settlement with local activists and others who sued the department after their arrest during a protest at Artscape in 2016.
“Today’s settlement is a small step toward achieving Bloc’s and other community activists’ goals in creating a safer Baltimore, including for the free exercise of the right to criticize the government,” Public Justice Center officials said in a statement Wednesday announcing the settlement.
The activist group Baltimore Bloc filed the lawsuit with the help of the Public Justice Center and the law firm Covington & Burling.
The lawsuit was filed last year after nine people were arrested during the “AFROMATION” demonstrations protesting police mistreatment of black residents on July 16, 2016.
As part of the settlement, the city worked with the plaintiffs to improve policies regarding “protests or First Amendment activity, interactions with members of the LGBTQ community, and in police misconduct and discipline processes, among others,” city police and law department officials said in a statement.
The city also agreed to pay $17,000 to each of the nine plaintiffs as part of the settlement.
“BPD’s targeting of protesters because they exercised their right to free speech to call attention to police mistreatment was unconstitutional, and bad policy besides, in a city where the need for police reform is well-documented and acknowledged. The treatment of those arrested during Afromation was unconscionable,” Debra Gardner, attorney for the plaintiffs and Legal Director at the Public Justice Center, said.
“The result in this case should help ensure that BPD respects everyone’s right to speak out against injustice,” Gardner said.
The reforms reached will be presented to the judge overseeing the decree, and ultimately be adapted into the department’s policy and training.
The BPD has drafted a nine-page policy on “First Amendment Protected Activity,” which requires officers responding to demonstrations to have “individualized probable cause to believe that the person has committed a crime,” not that they were merely part of a group demonstrating.
The new policy also prevents officers from surrounding protesters, preventing them from leaving the area unless warnings to disperse have been given, and they’ve had an opportunity to leave.
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The lawsuit alleged officers “kettled” or surrounded protesters and bystanders on a ramp to the highway that was already closed for the festival, and made arrests indiscriminately without making any distinction between individuals who had helped to block the highway and those who had not. A total of 55 adults and 10 juveniles — including one of the plaintiffs — were arrested. Officers then held them in deplorable conditions, the suit said.
“On a day when it was over 90 degrees, police held us in hot, cramped police vans with little to no access to water, food, toilets, or medications,” former Baltimore Bloc member Ralikh Hayes, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “One person even threw up and fainted because of the heat. The handcuffs were so tight and on for so long that many people lost feeling in their hands and shoulders for several days.”
The plaintiffs included Tenney Mason, a retired photo editor for Patuxent Publishing, which is owned by The Baltimore Sun, and Georgia McCandlish, a legal observer for the Baltimore Action Legal Team, which monitors protests in the city.
Baltimore Police denied the allegations, but agreed to making reforms.
“Despite the parties disagreement over the accuracy of the allegations, and instead of engaging in a drawn out legal contest, they engaged in a positive dialog,” the city statement said.
The work is an “example of the community involvement in the reform process that was envisioned by the City, the Baltimore Police Department, and the Department of Justice when the parties originally entered into the Consent Decree,” the city said.
Amid ongoing criticism, the Baltimore Police Department issued a statement Tuesday defending its actions in the arrest of 65 people during protests Saturday near the Jones Falls Expressway and the city's annual Artscape festival.