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Judge approves settlement over U.S. Park Police’s handling of protests

Excerpt from The Washington Post

Ending a 13-year legal struggle, a federal judge gave final approval Monday to a settlement in which the federal government agreed to new terms of engagement with demonstrators in the nation’s capital and agreed to pay $2.2 million to almost 400 protesters and bystanders swept up by U.S. and local police during a September 2002 demonstration against the World Bank.

The District in 2010 agreed to pay $8.25 million to the same class-action litigants, who were picked up in a mass arrest at Pershing Park, and also agreed to overhaul police practices to protect the First Amendment rights of protesters.

In approving the deal, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan called the settlement “historic” and said it could guide police agencies nationwide.

The settlement came in the wake of unrest prompted by the injuries and deaths of unarmed black men in custody in cities such as Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, as the Justice Department reviews whether local authorities have engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional policing.

“It is significant this agreement is with the federal government, because the Department of Justice is reviewing the practices and the policies of local law enforcement agencies,” Sullivan said. “I hope this agreement will serve as a model for local jurisdictions across the country.”

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, the nonprofit group that brought the case, said the agreement disproves the belief that the free speech and assembly rights of protesters “have to be constricted for the sake of security and order.”

“There is simply no basis by which any other jurisdiction’s police department can legitimately claim it cannot enact these procedural standards that conform to fundamental constitutional requirements,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Marina Braswell told the court that the settlement, which concerned the U.S. Park Police and incidents involving other agencies — D.C. police in the Pershing Park case — could help shape policies for other law enforcement agencies called in to provide such inter-agency assistance.

The agreement settles complaints that federal and local authorities violated the constitutional rights of 386 people arrested without warning Sept. 27, 2002, in Pershing Park, leaving some tied wrist to ankle and detained as long as 24 hours.

D.C. police eventually apologized and abandoned “trap and detain” tactics in which officers surrounded and arrested large groups of people close to demonstrations.

Similarly, U.S. Park Police agreed under Monday’s settlement, in general, to prohibit the use of police lines to encircle demonstrators, cite a particularized probable cause for any individual’s arrest, provide three audible warnings at least two minutes apart to disperse crowds and identify avenues for protesters to comply.

In response to the concerns about the mass arrests, the D.C. Council passed limits on police powers in 2005, and set requirements for police training and retention of dispatch, video and command data and materials collected to prevent destruction of evidence.

The council also prohibited arrests for “parading” or demonstrating without a permit, set a four-hour standard for releasing protest-related arrestees, and required written disclosure of release rights.

Under terms reached in May, about 85 percent of the 386 class-action members are expected to split $1.6 million, receiving about $5,000 each.

Lawyers will receive $568,000, allocated by the Interior Department.