December Black Lives Matter protesters file tort claims against Berkeley

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Rachael Garner/File

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Four tort claims against the city of Berkeley have been filed on behalf of 14 people alleging injuries by police.

The claims, stemming from the Black Lives Matter protests in December, allege that several Berkeley police officers and a city official violated the claimants’ state and federal constitutional rights — including freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom from excessive or arbitrary force — without authorization.

The city and Berkeley Police Department declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The claims were filed by attorneys Jim Chanin and Rachel Lederman between April 15 and June 2, before BPD’s June 9 post-incident review — which included recommendations for policy changes — of police response to the demonstrations.

Joseph Watkins, a UC Berkeley senior and plaintiff in the tort claims, said the police review was inadequate.

“It refuses to acknowledge the very ideological foundations of the liberatory Black Lives Matter protests … which directly challenge police misconduct, social injustice, and demand accountability,” Watkins said.

According to official tort claim documents, Watkins was arrested during the December protests for questioning the use of force by several officers and had his mouth covered by a police officer before he could communicate his identity to a National Lawyers Guild legal observer.

Moni Law, a Berkeley community member, said she was in front of a line of peaceful protesters with her back to the skirmish line when she was hit from behind by a baton. Law said she later avoided what she thought was a flash grenade thrown by police.

Law said she was the only person who filed a complaint with the city’s Police Review Commission, or PRC, concerning the December protests. Law had to face the officer against whom she was filing the complaint, who was able to review the evidence presented and the information that Law “wasn’t necessarily privy to,” she said. After the commission determined that there was no substantial evidence, Law said she decided “reluctantly” to file a tort claim.

PRC chair Alison Bernstein said that the commission investigates only whether an individual officer violated any laws of action and that people often mistakenly think the focus of a PRC investigation is on the victim instead of the officer.

Chanin said the tort claims do focus on protester injuries and the actions of individuals rather than the crowd as a whole.

“There were demonstrators that acted inappropriately, but our laws deal with individual responsibility, not collective guilt,” Chanin said. “People who got hurt, who were not doing anything inappropriate — those are our clients.”

Chanin said that although one incentive for the claims is for claimants to win compensation for their injuries, he is primarily interested in pursuing injunctive relief — court orders that may have the potential to change the way the police operate in the future — and the “reforms” that could result from the case.

Commissioner George Lippman said the PRC has been conducting an additional investigation mandated by Berkeley City Council that is unrelated to the tort claims and will recommend additional policy changes. Ultimately, all changes will need to be approved by City Council, he said.

Chanin said there is no way to know how long the case will take, as it is still in its preliminary stage.

Contact Abdullah Mirza at [email protected].