More than two dozen anti-abortion protesters sued the Los Angeles Police Department on Friday, claiming officers exerted brutal and "unreasonable" force when they used a martial arts-type device and other pain-inflicting techniques to break up demonstrations last year.
The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges that 29 demonstrators who blocked entrances at two family planning clinics suffered a wide range of injuries when police moved in, including broken arms and legs, strained necks and hands and damaged nerves.
The most serious injuries, the suit alleges, came from use of the so-called nunchaku, a martial arts device consisting of two sticks connected by a rope. Police used a modified nunchaku- like instrument made of plastic to remove protesters at a June 10 demonstration.
"Never before--or since--has the LAPD used such a violent manner to remove nonviolent, peaceful demonstrators," said Susan Carpenter McMillan, a spokeswoman for the Right-to-Life League of Southern California, one of the organizations sponsoring the lawsuit.
Police officials have repeatedly defended the amount of force used to break up the protests, which resulted in the largest mass arrests in recent Los Angeles history.
The suit stems from two demonstrations organized by Operation Rescue, a militant anti-abortion group. More than 1,000 protesters were arrested when they blockaded two Los Angeles clinics on March 25 and June 10 in an effort to prevent women from seeking abortions.
One of the plaintiffs, Daniel Bruno, 41, of Orange, said police grabbed and twisted his wrists until finally breaking his right arm, even though he told the officers he would cooperate.
"I was doing what they wanted as quickly as I could," said Bruno, an accountant. The police acted "completely out of scale with what was needed to get the job done."
Bruno, like many of the other Operation Rescue members, is awaiting trial on trespassing charges.
The suit accuses Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and five officers of assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. It seeks an order prohibiting police from using the "pain-compliance" holds or the nunchaku on people protesting against abortion. The complaint also asks for unspecified monetary damages, plus treble medical expenses and lost earnings.
Cmdr. William Booth, spokesman for the LAPD and also named as a defendant in the suit, said authorities used the amount of force necessary to "overcome resistance" by the demonstrators, many of whom allowed their bodies to go limp or locked arms to resist arrest.
"The majority were resisting and confronted police with a situation where force had to be used," Booth said. "It was the most humane kind of force with the least potential for serious injury."
The city of Los Angeles is also named as a defendant. A spokesman for the city attorney's office declined comment until officials had time to review the complaint.
The suit describes what it calls "typical" use of pain-compliance methods: one or more police officers would pull a demonstrator's arms backward and upward to force the person's head and upper torso toward the ground. At the same time, the suit says, one or more other police officers would place their fingers in the demonstrator's nostrils and pull upward and in the opposite direction.
As for use of the nunchaku- like tool, the suit says, it inflicts "an agony so severe" that "victims . . . often faint, black out, and are often rendered unable to communicate to the officers, orally or otherwise."
Lawyers for the demonstrators said their clients' cause--fighting abortion--is not at issue in the case but, instead, the right of any American to protest without fear of being hurt by police.
"We are not here to vindicate a particular issue," said attorney Samuel B. Casey. "We ask all civil rights advocates, whatever their cause, to join us."
But both Casey and McMillan claimed that the anti-abortion movement was being singled out for "discrimination" by police, saying that officers' tactics with Operation Rescue protesters were more heavy-handed than with other activists. They asserted that the nunchaku has not been used on any other group.
But Booth said it was the size of the demonstrations and the number of people who ignored police orders to disperse that made police use more force with Operation Rescue demonstrators than with other groups.
"I don't know ever a time when more than 500 arrests (in a single demonstration) had to be made," Booth said. "It presented us with . . . a unique workload and burden."
Anti-abortion demonstrators have increasingly leveled charges of police brutality in Southern California and other cities across the country where they have staged sit-ins at women's clinics.
Late last year, 33 anti-abortion demonstrators filed a $1.98-million claim against Sacramento officials for damages allegedly suffered when police used Mace to break up a protest.
And in Los Angeles, six activists who claimed they had been hurt by police sought--but were denied--a federal injunction that would have barred use of "pain-compliance" techniques.