Legal observers press suit alleging abuse by Detroit police

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A group of five women claimed Monday that Detroit police ignored their bright green caps designating them as National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers and assaulted them during protests last year.

Peatmoss Ellis, left, of Highland Park, and Lauren Rosen of Oak Park hug as lawyer David A. Robinson speaks during a press conference Monday over a recently filed lawsuit involving legal observers who say they were were arrested and assaulted by Detroit police during last summer's protests over police brutality. Both Ellis and Rosen are plaintiffs in the Detroit Will Breathe lawsuit against the City of Detroit.

A lawsuit alleging the abuse was filed this month and amended Monday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The five plaintiffs and their attorney David Robinson laid out the allegations during a press conference outside the federal courthouse.

"Without any lawful justification or excuse, my clients were viciously attacked by Detroit police officers for no other reason than them being legal observers," Robinson said. The alleged incidents happened during protests in May and August against police brutality, the lawsuit said.

The 34-page complaint names as defendants the city of Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan, Police Chief James Craig, Cmdr. Darin Szilagy, police officer Rodney Cushingberry and unknown officers.

Lawyer David A. Robinson speaks during the press conference outside U.S. District Court in Detroit.

Monday's addition to the lawsuit, which seeks more than $75,000, was to include a request for injunctive relive "prohibiting Defendants from continuing the unlawful practices," because the suit claims the legal observers are afraid to act in that capacity during protests after the alleged incidents.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said in an email: "Detroit Police have been doing a good job of keeping the peace during protests and professionally handling allegations of misconduct after the fact. Fair and honest self-assessment is crucial, especially these days.

"I doubt the recently filed 'legal observer' claims will uncover anything new about last summer's protest activity, but we will examine the matter carefully and defend accordingly," Garcia said.

Plaintiff Marie Reimers said she has been a legal observer for six years, "and I have never seen anything like I saw this summer in Detroit. I was beaten and gassed several times. I've suffered long-term physical problems from it."

"The Detroit Police Department does not exist to help Detroiters," Reimers said. "It exists to terrorize them."

Clarissa Grimes, another plaintiff, said an officer assaulted her with his shield. 

"He was hitting me so hard, it left a bruise in the outline of a shield on my arm," she said.

Clarissa Grimes, speaking at the news conference, says she has suffered panic attacks since her experience at last summer's protests.

"I saw bones broken, eyes burning from tear gas," said Grimes, who said she has suffered panic attacks since the alleged incident.

Robinson said "a considerable amount" of the alleged abuse is on video. "Much of it is online," he said.

After the initial lawsuit was filed April 2, Garcia told The Detroit News: "None of the filed complaints or events which DPD self-investigated involved ‘legal observers.' 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.”

Attorney Julie Hurwitz, president of the National Lawyers Guild Detroit & Michigan Chapter, represents the protest group Detroit Will Breathe in a federal lawsuit that levels similar accusations against Detroit police officers as Monday's amended filing. She said Detroit police are out of control. 

"The Detroit Police Department has demonstrated a pattern of civil rights violations," Hurwitz said. "Instead of promoting problem officers, which happens all the time, (Craig) needs to get rid of them."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN