ACLU suing city of Omaha, OPD alleging ‘excessive force’ in protester arrests

A group of protesters, organizing on social media, gathered Saturday evening, July 25, 2020,...
A group of protesters, organizing on social media, gathered Saturday evening, July 25, 2020, near Turner Park before marching down Farnam Street.
Published: Oct. 5, 2020 at 11:48 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 5, 2020 at 8:24 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The ACLU of Nebraska on Monday has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Omaha and police officials alleging excessive force was used against Black Lives Matter protesters in recent months.

Ahead of the filing, the ACLU published a news release detailing the lawsuit was filed on behalf of ProBLAC and “a diverse group of citizens calling for racial justice" in U.S. District Court will name the City of Omaha, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer, and OPD Capt. Mark Matuza; and will focus specifically on “suspect policy and practices” of OPD during protests this summer at 72nd and Dodge streets as well as the Midtown protest in July.

BREAKING: Today on behalf of ProBLAC and all Nebraskans calling for racial justice, we’re suing the City of Omaha,...

Posted by ACLU of Nebraska on Monday, October 5, 2020

Images from this summer showed police using “flash-bangs,” tear gas, and pepper balls to disperse crowds. The complaint argues “the answer to protests against police brutality shouldn’t be more brutality.”

Monday afternoon, the lawsuit was made publicly available. The petition includes the following allegations:

  • The Omaha protest on May 29 at Crossroads Mall was sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis May 25. The petitioners claim officers declared the event an unlawful assembly but “the vast majority of protestors did not hear any such order.”
  • Officers took no actions to keep the protestors out of the street and instead used “skirmish lines” to force them towards the intersection of 72nd and Dodge Streets “while police prepared to respond with extreme force.”
  • Pepper balls were used on protestors despite manufacturer instructions not to shoot targets directly while “Omaha Police indiscriminately fired pepper balls at protestors at close or even point-blank range."
  • Protesters were shot with pepper balls and assaulted by officers, the petition states. An officer shot at least one protestor standing on the sidewalk in the head at close range with a flash-bang grenade. Another was shot in the leg with a tear gas canister causing severe burns.
  • Omaha Police “generally employed the same tactics” on May 30 at the same location during another protest.
  • At the July 25 protest held by ProBLAC at Turner Park, the petition alleges police “kettled” protestors on the Farnam Street bridge despite initially supporting the march by blocking traffic and escorting protesters east towards Farnam Street.
  • When they reached the bridge, officers announced all those present were being arrested. 128 people were detained, 125 were subsequently arrested for “unlawful assembly, obstructing a highway and failure to disperse.”
  • Protestor Mark Vondrasek was shoved to the ground from his bicycle by officers and then shot with pepper balls while a banner was “forcibly grabbed away” by police from three protestors.
  • Protestor Cole Christensen was tackled to the ground and zip-tied before being ordered to remain on the ground. Those who expressed disapproval towards officers' actions were shot with pepper balls.

The Omaha City Attorney issued a response Monday prior to the release of the filing:

“It is difficult for the city to respond to a lawsuit when it has yet to be served with the complaint. Omaha has always been supportive of free speech and public demonstrations and will continue to do so. The police make every effort to cooperate and protect demonstrators as long as they obey the law and police commands. We look forward to defending the city.”

Paul D. Kratz, Omaha City Attorney

The lawsuit names an organization and eight individuals as plaintiffs, all of whom were detained or arrested during the Midtown protests, according to the release. The plaintiffs listed are: ProBLAC, Midtown protest organizer Alexander “Bear” Matthews, Joshua Augustine, journalist Melanie Buer, Jordan Corbin, Katelyn Huckins, Darren Renfrow, Liya Whatcott, and Riley Wilson.

6 News spoke with four of the plantiffs in the civil rights case who were involved in the Black Lives Matter protests at the center of the suit, from the George Floyd protests in late May at 72nd and Dodge streets, to the “Justice for James” (Scurlock) protests in late July; from Midtown to the Old Market and back again.

In the Midtown protest in July, OPD arrested more than 100 protesters on the bridge at 30th and Farnam streets, mostly for obstructing a highway, and failing to disperse.

The lawsuit says officers used excessive physical force and chemical agents as a way to punish protesters.

“Without getting too deep, there were things I saw that I would never expect from people I would call to take care of me; and as a black man, I already face that fear,” plaintiff Jordan Corbin said.

Corbin said the chemical agents used by police this summer caused him excruciating pain.

“To have this sort of resistance now — maybe we are on to something," plaintiff Josh Augustine said.

The ACLU says it hopes the lawsuit protects future protesters and that the courts reaffirm the rights of peaceful protesters.

“We’re looking forward to a robust discovery process so we can learn even more about what happened in Omaha this summer,” said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska. "We feel confident we have a strong case to make.”

In addition to seeking damages, the lawsuit requests an evidentiary hearing and two injunctions, one preventing police from using traffic laws to shut down protests in the streets and another to stop police from using “chemical agents” to disperse protests.

“The answer to protests against police brutality shouldn’t be more brutality,” Conrad said in the release. “Omaha Police have put Black Omahans and all Omahans calling for justice in the unacceptable position of deciding between their constitutional rights and their own health and safety. We’re asking the courts to intervene, to reaffirm peaceful protesters' rights and to prevent irreparable damage caused by excessive force going unchecked.”

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