The District government agreed yesterday to pay a total of $425,000 to seven people caught up in a mass arrest at a downtown park in September 2002, acknowledging that they were wrongfully arrested and promising to adopt changes in police procedures.
The agreement settles a lawsuit in which the seven alleged that D.C. police violated their constitutional rights and department policy during the roundup of about 400 protesters and bystanders in Pershing Park. The settlement also requires D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey to send a personal letter of apology to each of the plaintiffs.
The monetary award raised questions about the settlement's effect on three lawsuits that make similar claims against the city, including a class-action suit filed on behalf of all 400 people arrested that day.
"It's too bad the taxpayers have to pay for the wrongful actions of our police department," said D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who issued an investigative report last year that said Ramsey and other police officials had conspired to cover up evidence of wrongdoing during the mass arrest.
"What do you pay people for taking away their liberty for 24 hours, 36 hours? . . . I think we're probably looking at the city paying out another huge amount of money."
Ramsey said yesterday that city attorneys have instructed him not to comment on the settlement because of the ongoing litigation.
The arrests occurred Sept. 27, 2002, during demonstrations against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. With Ramsey's approval, Assistant Police Chief Peter J. Newsham ordered officers to corral demonstrators and anyone else within the boundaries of the park, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and to charge them with failing to obey police. Those arrested were put in plastic handcuffs, taken away on buses and detained on floors for as long as 36 hours.
A subsequent internal investigation by police, made public by a federal judge in September 2003, found that Newsham never gave an order for the crowd to disperse and that police, therefore, had no justification for making the arrests.
In approving the settlement with the seven plaintiffs at a hearing yesterday, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan hailed the deal as "historic," noting that it marked a major turnabout by city officials in accepting blame and offering to make amends for the police actions.
Sullivan, who previously had criticized Ramsey and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) for not publicly admitting the errors made at Pershing Park, said he was proud of Ramsey for agreeing to issue an apology.
"A real man can admit that problems can occur. . . . that the arrests in this matter were flawed," Sullivan said. "I think it's a great agreement. I applaud it."
The seven plaintiffs were five protesters and two bystanders. Each will receive about $50,000 after paying the legal expenses of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild and the law firm of Covington & Burling, which teamed up to represent the seven.
In interviews yesterday, the plaintiffs said they decided not to take the case to trial because of the city's agreement to adopt police procedures intended to prevent improper arrests in the future.
"I've said all along that I would withdraw my name from this lawsuit if Chief Ramsey resigned or was fired. That's what should have happened here," said Adam Eidinger, 31, a protest organizer and one of the plaintiffs. "But I accepted this agreement because the changes the police are going to have to make in their arrest procedures are substantial."