The District of Columbia’s ACLU branch announced Wednesday that it has filed a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department, alleging that officers used excessive force and illegally arrested peaceful protesters on Inauguration Day.
Filed in federal court, the civil rights lawsuit also accuses officers of denying detainees access to toilets, food and water. The suit was filed on behalf of four plaintiffs, three of whom were arrested, including a photojournalist.
A small number of demonstrators vandalized businesses and destroyed property on Jan. 20, but police officers manhandled, pepper-sprayed and rounded up peaceful protesters without justification or orders to disperse, the civil rights group said.
“We saw the police use the actions of a few as justification to punish a great many law-abiding demonstrators,” said Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia.
Claiming violations of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit states that the police department also violated the District’s First Amendment Assemblies Act, which requires police to have probable cause that protesters committed unlawful acts in order to “substantially encircle” them.
The lawsuit seeks monetary compensation in an amount to be determined by a jury, Mr. Michelman said.
The Metropolitan Police Department released a statement via Twitter, saying that its officers protect thousands of protesters each year. On Inauguration Day, at least six officers were injured when some demonstrators committed crimes. Those persons “were ultimately arrested,” the statement reads.
“As with any pending criminal or civil matter, we will continue to support and respect the formal legal process,” it states. “Moreover, all instances of use of force by officers and allegations of misconduct will be fully investigated.”
The D.C. attorney general’s office, which usually does not comment on pending cases, offered no comment on the lawsuit.
One of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, Shay Horse, is a New York resident and photojournalist who covers protests across the country and around the world.
Mr. Horse said that as he photographed protesters near Franklin Square, an officer pepper-sprayed him from behind, even though his camera identified him as a journalist and he was not protesting.
The police then “kettled,” or corralled, more than 200 people, including Mr. Horse, onto 12th and L streets NW. After sunset, the police began to make arrests and handcuffed Mr. Horse with zipties so tight, his fingers became numb, he said.
At a nearby facility, police ordered that male detainees remove their pants to undergo manual rectal probing.
“I felt like they were using molestation and rape as punishment. They used those tactics to inflict pain and misery on people who were supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,” said Mr. Horse, adding that he was released 33 hours later.
He said the fingers on his left hand are still numb, and he now suffers from stress and anxiety.
Another plaintiff, Judah Ariel, said he had on a neon-green hat labeled “National Lawyers Guild” to identify himself as a legal observer. While he monitored protesters, officers began “dousing” the crowd with pepper spray without warning, he said.
“I felt like I was suffocating,” Mr. Ariel said. “This is the city where I’ve chosen to make my home and raise a family, and all of a sudden, it felt like my police department [and] my government had turned on me without warning and without justification.”
The ACLU commended D.C. police for their history of handling peaceful demonstrations but lamented the department’s “massive, excessive, unjustified and unconstitutional” response.