Several San Diego civil-rights lawyers have filed more than a dozen claims against local police departments, many of them citing excessive force connected to the police protests in May and June.
On hand for the news conference were the legal director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, David Loy; Geneviéve Jones-Wright, the co-founder of MoGo, Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance; Julia Yoo of Iredale and Yoo, APC; Dante Pride of the Pride Law Firm; and attorneys Michael Marrinan and Gerald Singleton, both of whom head their own law offices.
"I share the concerns of all the speakers today that law enforcement has a systemic pattern of excessive and abusive and unnecessary force in response to protests otherwise and especially against Black people and communities of color," Loy said. "It's necessary to reduce and direct resources away from law enforcement into community care, into community service and away from punishment and criminalization."
Thursday's news conference, of course, comes in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, who now face criminal charges, and the controversial arrest of Amaurie Johnson in La Mesa. Video of Johnson's arrest was posted to Instagram and quickly went viral as the county and country reeled from the killing of Floyd. The incidents prompted protesters to gather in several San Diego cities, as well as across the nation.
Marrinan said the fight for social justice that the attorneys involved in was not a new story in San Diego County.
"I feel sad that we even have to be here today," Marrinan said. "I thought back over the last several weeks … I remember very well, I've been doing police abuse cases for over 25 years, and just about 25 years ago, a 16-year-old boy was killed when the San Diego Police officers used what they called a carotid restraint, a type of chokehold, and at the time, there was a fair amount of community uproar, but it didn't last for long, and the one good thing that's come out of all of this is that the police departments have finally said, 25 years later, that they're banning this dangerous and deadly type of chokehold."
Many of the attorneys digitally gathered on Thursday discussed cases and claims that had been filed in the wake of the protests, including Pride, who shared details about two cases involving clients struck by so-called "less lethal" rounds.
"We have video of Mr. [Eric] Woolsey simply holding a phone above his head, and, yeah, he may have flipped the bird at the police, but the bird-flipping at the police is not enough to be shot with a metal kinetic round such that he broke two of his fingers."
Video of the incident shows Woolsey bleeding and cradling his injured hand.
Jones-Wright spoke at length, describing the racial divide in the United States and in San Diego County.
"There has always been this reality of two Americas: One America that calls 911 and feels safe knowing officers are on their way," Jones-Wright said. "And the other, where calling 911 for help has to be thought about a time or two before making the call because they know that when officers show up, even if they are the caller, their very lives may be in danger."
Jones-Wright used the example of the arrest of a Black woman in Ocean Beach in early May, another video that went viral, to highlight the disparity.
"In one America, a dog off-leash at a public beach -- in violation of signs and rules -- a white woman would be told by the lifeguard to put her dog on the leash and the police would not be called at all," Jones-Wright said. "In the other America, where it is a Black woman in Ocean Beach with an unleashed dog, not only does the police get called by the lifeguard, but when the police come, there are several of them, and they yell at her … bystanders note that other non-Black people have dogs in the area without a leash and they aren't being treated that way and start to film. The officers body-slam the young Black woman onto the ground three times."
Late in the conference, Marrinan brought up allegations in an attempt to shed light on what he believes is a widespread police practice that took place at San Diego Stadium, conduct that, if true, has remained largely unpublicized.
"[This] is … in the midst of COVID," Singleton said. "Everybody's thrown in this huge cage, literally a cage, no bathrooms, now water, people are still in handcuffs, and so many of the people are cuffed in a manner that is causing them excruciating pain. And I think all of us see this all the time. It's a form of street justice that officers often do. It's wrong and it's illegal, period, no matter who's being arrested, and one fellow was telling me about there were grown men in this cage literally crying because of the pain that they were in from the cuffs, and there's officers and deputies right outside, just laughing at them, and not providing water to people who had been pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed..."
In addition to filing a pair of suits for clients who he said were peacefully protesting, Singleton said he had filed two suits on behalf of taxpayers to ban the use of projectiles and tear gas as means of crowd control (see suits below).
"I think the larger point here is this: While there's no question both David [Loy] and Dante [Pride' were 100% correct that people of color are targeted and are much more likely to be stopped and to suffer abuse at the hands of the police, it's not limited," Singleton said. "Anybody who embraces this movement is, unfortunately, to the current police culture, viewed as an enemy and they are treated accordingly."
So far, Singleton said, he had not gotten any response yet from any agencies or public entities regarding the taxpayer suits that had been filed.
NBC 7 reached out to La Mesa Police and San Diego Police on Thursday regarding the news conference held by the civil-rights lawyers, both of which said they cannot comment on the legal actions.
"We encourage any member of the public that believes they suffered injury as a result of force used by any of our officers to contact us so that their incident can be investigated," added an LMPD spokesman.