Legal observers allege excessive force, wrongful arrest during Detroit protests

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — A group of legal observers are suing the city, Mayor Mike Duggan, Police Chief James Craig and other Detroit officers alleging they were assaulted, restrained with excessive force and wrongfully arrested during protests downtown last year.

The complaint filed Friday in U.S. District Court contends five legal observers from Wayne County — Emma Howland-Bolton, Marie Reimers, Sara Habbo, Clarissa Grimes and Shannon McEvilly — were targeted with tear gas and victimized by other "wrongful conduct" in a series of alleged encounters with officers in May, July and August of 2020.

Detroit police officers fire tear gas after items were thrown at them at Bagley and Third Street.  People march in protest of police brutality in Detroit on May 30, 2020.  People protest police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

The federal complaint alleges constitutional violations, municipal liability and gross negligence, noting the actions of officers were taken "under the direction and control" of Duggan, Craig and other commanding officers who "acted in bad faith."

Last spring, thousands of people flooded the city's downtown and other sections of Detroit as part of nationwide protests in response to the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. Most of the Detroit protests were peaceful, although there also were demonstrations with clashes between officers and demonstrators. 

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said in a Friday statement to The Detroit News that "out of 120 days and nights of protest last summer, less than a dozen citizen complaints were filed against the Detroit Police Department over the way they handled the demonstrations."

"None of the filed complaints or events which DPD self-investigated involved ‘legal observers,'" Garcia wrote. “If people identifying themselves as legal observers have waited a year to file suit and now claim the police mistreated them last summer, the city will investigate and defend the claim.”

The complaint says Howland-Bolton and Reimers attended a demonstration around May 30-31 near Michigan Avenue and Third as legal observers. Howland-Bolton, while standing on the sidewalk and recording the scene, was "subjected to tear gas and other wrongful conduct" by an unknown officer. She then was knocked down and handcuffed with excessive force and wrongfully arrested, the suit contends.

Reimers on or about May 30-31, July 10 and Aug. 22, 2020, was observing from various sidewalk locations, including adjacent to Woodward Avenue between Grand River and John R, and was exposed to tear gas multiple times, "punching her and physically rushing her."

"This excessive force and assault, while she was not violating any laws was

done without probable cause and in retaliation for exercise of her 1st and 14th

Amendment Rights," according to the lawsuit.

Habbo, McEvilly and Grimes, on Aug. 22, 2020, also adjacent to Woodward between Grand River and John R, raise similar claims of being subjected to tear gas and rushed by officers. The suit adds McEvilly and Grimes were allegedly hit "with riot shields and batons."

The suit said the defendants had advised members of the public that they needed to be on the sidewalk and still "assaulted, beat, sprayed and harassed them, using excessive force" even though "they complied with the request."

The federal filing argues that officials failed to intervene or ensure officers were properly trained and hid evidence of the wrongdoing.

The plaintiffs are demanding a trial and more than $75,000 in damages.