A federal judge on Friday ordered police in Columbus, Ohio, to stop using force against nonviolent protesters in the city as part of a preliminary injunction that denounced tactics of officers who the judge said ran “amok” against demonstrators following George Floyd’s death last summer in Minneapolis.
Marbley said that authorities often used force “random and indiscriminately” against peaceful protesters in Columbus without provocation.
Marbley’s ruling favored 26 plaintiffs who sued the city after taking part in the demonstrations last summer, alleging that officers responded to protesters who posed no threat of violence with excessive use of force. The lawsuit, which was filed last July, alleged that officers used pepper spray and tear gas and assaulted protesters with a sound cannon, batons, and rubber and wooden bullets.
Protesters accused police of what they called “collective punishment,” responding to any person “who threw a water bottle, harassed or taunted an officer” by indiscriminately pepper-spraying or tear-gassing a group.
Marbley said the police should also restrain from using other nonlethal force tactics like the use of stun grenades, rubber bullets, wooden pellets, batons, body slams, pushing or pulling, or kettling, on nonviolent protesters.
Efforts to reach the Columbus Police Department were unsuccessful.
In a statement Saturday, Sean Walton, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led the judge’s ruling, said he welcomes Marbley’s decision.
“We are pleased that the Court recognized the truth of the overwhelming testimony, shocking videos, and heart-wrenching pictures and issued an injunction which protects the people from the police,” Walton told The Washington Post.
The judge’s ruling comes at a tense moment for policing not just in Columbus but the nation. New protests have erupted in the city following the fatal police shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant as she attacked a woman with a knife on April 20.
Bryant’s funeral Friday unfolded days after Columbus leaders called on the Justice Department to investigate the police department, following a series of police killings of Black people. The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is investigating the case, which has raised questions about police officers’ use of deadly force.
Marbley ruled that a “mountain of evidence” showed some protesters were targeted and confronted with “less-lethal munitions” while trying to follow police orders to leave the demonstrations, walk away or sit on the sidewalk.
According to the injunction, a video showed protester Terry Dean Hubby Jr. standing on the sidewalk when he was struck and injured by a projectile that shattered the 31-year-old’s knee.
“The video reveals that the police begin to shoot less-lethal projectiles while the CPD loud system sounds a dispersal order,” Marbley wrote. “In other words, there was no time for protesters to react.”
The violent clashes between the Columbus police and protesters last summer prompted local officials to push for change.
In November, Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther (D) asked the public to help conduct an independent investigation into the actions of some of the officers and set up an independent hotline for the public to send complaints, as well as photographs and videos related to officers’ actions during these protests.
An independent committee established by the city reviewed the complaints and hired a retired FBI agent to investigate the complaints the panel deemed potentially criminal.
The court has now prohibited the police from inflicting pain to punish or deter nonviolent protesters and said officers should ensure that their body cameras are working during all interactions with peaceful demonstrators.
The injunction also says that individuals who identify themselves as media, paramedics or legal observers are allowed to record at protests and assist those in need.
Walton added that the decision underscores “the urgent need” for federal intervention.
“The use of excessive force against Columbus citizens persists to this day,” he added, “and while this order ensures that protesters are protected, we must not lose sight of the reason for the protests and the urgent need to reform the Columbus Division of Police.”
In a Friday statement, Ginther (D) said the court’s finding indicated the city “fell short” in its response to the “extraordinary circumstances” faced last summer, the Associated Press reported. A report commissioned by the city council and released last week concluded that Columbus was unprepared for the size of the protests and that the police response did not meet national standards and protocols.
Ginther and City Attorney Zach Klein argued that although Columbus has made strides enacting changes to its police department, the city “needs additional help” as it faces “fierce opposition” to reform within the agency.
Columbus isn’t the only city to come under fire for how its police handled racial justice protests. The Los Angeles Police Department was also recently found to have mishandled protests last summer in the wake of Floyd’s death. An independent report found that officers illegally detained protesters and struck people who had committed no crimes with rubber bullets and batons.