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Federal lawsuit alleges Sacramento police used excessive force on protesters

Demonstrators protest peacefully in Hollywood after the death of George Floyd on June 2.
Demonstrators protest peacefully against police brutality and racial discrimination in Hollywood after the death of George Floyd on June 2.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Sacramento police are facing a lawsuit over officers’ use of force including rubber bullets and tear gas during protests sparked by police brutality and the killing of George Floyd.

The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court on Thursday, names four plaintiffs, but also seeks class-action status for the thousands of peaceful protesters who filled the streets over the past several weeks in Sacramento and were met with what court papers describe as “unreasonable and excessive use of force” by officers.

Floyd, a Black man, was killed on May 25 in Minneapolis when a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Nationwide outrage and protests immediately followed, with many around the country “disgusted by and fed-up with law enforcement’s all-too-frequent resort to deadly force without accountability,” according to the lawsuit.

“Demonstrating the very same propensity for the use of unjustified violence that gave rise to these recent nationwide demonstrations, [Sacramento police] officers took to the streets in droves, armed for war against their own citizenry, and employed severe and unjustified excessive force against peaceful, non-violent demonstrators,” the lawsuit states.

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Police departments across the country have faced scrutiny for the force they have used against protesters during recent demonstrations. In Los Angeles, the LAPD is investigating 56 allegations of misconduct by officers during protests, including 28 involving alleged use of force, according to the department.

It is not clear whether the Sacramento Police Department is conducting similar investigations. A Sacramento city spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.

The lawsuit, which alleges unreasonable and excessive force and constitutional violations, describes several incidents, including one on May 30 as Thongxy Phansopha was demonstrating peacefully near 21st and J streets in downtown Sacramento. Phansopha was near a line of police when officers began to indiscriminately fire their weapons into the crowd, according to the lawsuit.

Phansopha was hit with six rubber bullets — three to the head and face and three above the waist — and a tear gas canister and fell to the ground, but officers continued firing. Phansopha needed two emergency, life-saving brain surgeries because of their injuries from the projectiles, the lawsuit states.

Phansopha was seen with a severely bruised eye that was completely swollen shut and lacerations on their face and neck in a video taken after the incident.

That same day, Joshua Ruiz was protesting downtown near the Capitol when police opened fire. He was struck several times with projectiles and fell to the ground where he continued to be hit, the lawsuit states.

Elisabeth Crouchley said she was near 20th and J streets about 25 feet from a police line early on May 31 when officers opened fire on the peaceful demonstrators. She said she threw her hands up shouting, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” as she ran from officers.

She was struck with a rubber bullet on her right buttock and with a bean bag on the back of her neck. She was also hit with rubber bullets on the back of her head, her back, hip and foot, she said. She received two staples at a hospital to close a laceration on her head, the lawsuit states.

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Daniel Garza, a National Lawyers Guild legal observer, was following marchers for several miles on May 30 as they walked from the Sacramento County Main Jail to 19th Street. He was wearing a neon green hat that identified him as a guild observer and was taking video as officers formed a line and began to advance toward protesters.

As police moved forward, an officer told Garza to move in front of the police line. He refused, afraid that he would be hit with projectiles, and explained that he was not part of the protest and was not interfering, the lawsuit says.

Garza saw someone to his right throw an object toward the police line. The object landed far behind the officers and did not strike them, he said. In response, an officer raised his rifle and fired at Garza. He was struck in the left side of his forehead, causing him to fall to the ground and cry out in pain, according to the lawsuit and a video of the incident.

He contends his speech became impaired as he fled the scene with a nursing student and a doctor who attempted to apply a bandage to his wound. All three of them were hit with pepper balls fired by officers, according to the lawsuit.

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Garza continues to “experience pain, swelling, and severe discoloration to the left side of his face where he was shot, including his left eye swelling shut,” the lawsuit says. He has also had trouble with his short-term memory, focus and speech and exhibits symptoms consistent with a traumatic brain injury, the suit states.

The lawsuit names the city of Sacramento and its police department as defendants. It notes that the police department’s own policies allow for the use of less lethal weapons like rubber bullets, but attorneys representing the plaintiffs say they are nevertheless dangerous.

“In reality, projectile weapons have the ability to severely injure, permanently disable, and kill targets,” the lawsuit states.


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