Lawsuit From Protest in 2000 Settled

Times Staff Writer

A federal judge Friday signed the last settlement in a group of lawsuits claiming that Los Angeles police officers roughed up protesters and bystanders during the 2000 Democratic National Convention, bringing to $4.1 million the total the city has paid out.

The latest settlement, for $1.2 million, ends a class-action lawsuit filed by 91 protesters, reporters and bystanders who said their civil rights were violated when police opened fire with beanbag munitions, stinger rounds and hard rubber bullets after ordering demonstrators to disperse.

Despite the payouts, city officials maintained that Los Angeles Police Department officers did nothing wrong when dealing with demonstrations around Staples Center during the convention. The settlements, they added, were business decisions made to avoid the cost of full trials.

But attorneys for those injured fault the LAPD for failing to change tactics after the protests or discipline some of the officers involved.

"We believe that [the] LAPD's purpose was to punish and intimidate people exercising their 1st Amendment rights," said James Muller, an attorney for the protesters.

The plaintiffs said they would press ahead with a request for a court injunction barring the LAPD from using rubber bullets and beanbag projectiles for crowd control.

City officials said the changes requested by the plaintiffs weren't needed.

"We do believe that the tactics were good, and they are the same tactics we [would] continue to use if these circumstances occurred again," said City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who was police chief at the time of the convention. "The fact that there is a settlement is no indication that these officers collectively or individually did something wrong."

Matt Szabo, a spokesman for Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, concurred. "Given the enormous public safety challenges present during the convention, the Police Department did a remarkable job of maintaining the peace while protecting the protesters' 1st Amendment rights to assemble," he said.

In deciding to settle the case, city officials said the available videotape of the protests showed very little of the violence committed by protesters against officers, so a jury might conclude that the officers used rubber bullets unnecessarily, thus violating constitutional rights.

An internal city report also said poor documentation by officers made defending the city against the suit difficult.

The Aug. 14, 2000, incident occurred after a concert by Rage Against the Machine in a fenced-in area designated for demonstrators north of Staples Center, where the Democrats were meeting to nominate Al Gore.

About 8,000 people were in the designated area, according to an internal city report. As the concert ended, several people began throwing pieces of concrete, metal rods and glass bottles over a fence at police. Others started pulling up metal signs and setting bonfires, officials said.

The police declared the gathering an illegal assembly and gave demonstrators 15 minutes to leave the area.

Officers on horses moved in to disperse stragglers, but some demonstrators turned violent, said the internal report, which was the basis of the City Council decision to settle.

LAPD officials said that officers fired more than 200 rounds of "less lethal" projectiles, including rubber bullets, and that more than 100 officers reported being struck by objects thrown by protesters.

Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski said police faced a difficult situation. "Clearly there were some provocative acts," she said. "As much as we tried to denude the area of materials that could be used as weapons, people were breaking up curbs into concrete chunks and throwing them at the officers. There were bags filled with urine thrown at officers."

In the confrontation, one woman, Melissa Schneider, was hit in the eye by a rubber bullet and lost the vision in that eye. The city paid her $1.4 million in the settlement of a separate suit.

Those involved in the case settled Friday included one person who was briefly hospitalized after a police horse stepped on him and dozens of others who suffered lesser injuries after police fired projectiles.

Jerome Schnitzer, 75, said he had a black-and-blue welt and could not comfortably sit for days after a rubber bullet struck him in the buttocks.

"I do not want my taxes to pay for rubber bullets to shoot me in the buttocks while I am dispersing from a lawful assembly," Schnitzer told U.S. District Judge Florence Marie Cooper during Friday's court hearing.

Had the cases gone to trial, attorney Muller said, he would have introduced videotapes he said would contradict claims that officers were under a barrage of bottles and rocks when they began firing rubber bullets.

He said that 15 minutes was not enough time for thousands of people to leave the area and that officers began firing rubber bullets at people in the nearby intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Figueroa Street before the 15 minutes were up.

Muller charged that the LAPD failed to thoroughly investigate the incident and discipline officers involved.

An LAPD inquiry found the large number of projectiles fired by officers to be "troubling."

But Parks said the only significant change adopted as a result of the incident was a requirement that officers repeat vocal orders to disperse after they move a crowd from an original position.

The plaintiffs in the last case settled will get sums based on the extent of their injuries, with payments ranging from $250 for minor injuries to $56,000 to a journalist who suffered permanent nerve damage in his groin area after he was hit by a police-fired projectile, Muller said.

Those injured also included Martine Venegas, a delegate to the convention from Indiana, who was knocked to the ground.

The City Council voted in February to pay $875,000 to settle a separate lawsuit by 70 bicycle demonstrators who were arrested on a different day of the convention. Those protesters had claimed they were arrested without probable cause.

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