RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Activists and independent journalists are suing the city of Richmond and several police officers in federal court alleging a pattern of unreasonable force, harassment and unlawful arrests during and after racial justice protests in the summer of 2020.
Protests erupted and spread across the country that summer following the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Those seeking police reforms marched Richmond’s streets, where a curfew was implemented and protesters and law enforcement clashed in front of the city’s police department.
Two years later, a group of activists and independent journalists filed a federal lawsuit against the city and nearly 80 current and former members of the Richmond Police Department claiming that their constitutional rights were violated by police in various ways in the wake of the protests.
The lawsuit, first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia in May 2022.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include an attorney, independent and student journalists and others who observed and covered the 2020 protests. The suit claims they were verbally and physically assaulted, unlawfully handcuffed, harassed online and in person, doused with chemical agents by police and faced “bogus criminal charges.”
The defendants in the suit include the city and several named and unnamed members of law enforcement, including Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith, former chief William Smith and former interim chief William Blackwell.
The lawsuit claims that the citizen journalists and two former student journalists covering the protests for Virginia Commonwealth University’s student-run Commonwealth Times named as plaintiffs, were teargassed, pepper-sprayed, threatened and physically assaulted and detained without cause even though they identified themselves as press.
But the lawsuit alleges the department’s effort to retaliate against the plaintiffs extended “far beyond those protests.” One example the lawsuit points to is the arrest of a plaintiff named Vanna Goodenow on Oct. 27, 2020.
Goodenow began recording Richmond police officers as they appeared to be arresting someone who had been pulled over. According to the lawsuit, Goodenow was arrested and charged with obstructing justice for declining to move “all the way down the block, out of filming sight” but was found not guilty in March 2021 when the case went to trial.
The suit adds that all of the plaintiffs who were arrested and charged had all their charges dismissed or found not guilty, including one who received “an apology from the presiding judge at the conclusion of his trial.”
“The Plaintiffs’ injuries are the direct result of the policies, practices and customs of the Richmond Police Department, who routinely harass, detain, assault and arrest citizens and members of the press who observe or record police activity,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit, which calls for a jury trial, seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages for “violations of Plaintiffs’ First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights” and for the “physical, emotional and financial injuries they sustained as a result of Defendants’ unlawful conduct and bogus arrests.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Levar Stoney wrote in an email that the “city does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.” Online records show that a hearing has not been set in the case.
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