NLG Files Lawsuit Against the Detroit Police

Attorney David A. Robinson and Detroit representatives of the National Lawyers’ Guild (NLG) held a press conference today in downtown Detroit to announce a lawsuit against the city of Detroit for police brutality against legal observers during last year’s protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Following Robinson’s introduction, NLG representatives spoke, providing harrowing accounts of police violence against them at a number of protests at which widespread brutality was documented, against not only duly identified legal observers but also medics and members of the media (the author included).

NLG Speaks Out

Various NLG attorneys provided personal accounts of their experience at protests last year. One attorney related an incident of being corralled onto a city bus. She says that officers shouted at her that she was “not in control,” which, she said wryly, was apparent to her given that she was in handcuffs. Commented another attorney: “Chief Craig wants you to think that […] if you just play by his rules, you will be safe. But on August 22nd [2020], I did play by his rules, and DPD beat me up anyway.” All of these protesters, she said, were charged– and all of those chargers were later dismissed.

Tristan Taylor, organizer with Detroit Will Breathe, also spoke. Taylor, who was arrested multiple times last year, said that the issue of targeting legal observers wasn’t an accident but was, rather, wholly intentional. “[Legal observation] is a longstanding practice that has been, for decades, constitutionally recognized,” he said, “to have people whose job it is to ensure that law officers follow their own rules… the fact that they were specifically targeted by Detroit Police shows the full intention of the police department [of] obscuring justice, truth, and the ability of protestors to bring them under the full scrutiny that they deserve.”

BLM Lawsuit, City of Detroit Countersuit, & NLG Suit

Taylor went on to call out the “audacity” of the City of Detroit to “distinguish themselves as the only city to [file a countersuit] against protesters.” I covered this in January and have repeatedly observed the particular irony of Councilmember Scott Benson’s ostensible support for a sustainable Detroit alongside his support for the lawsuit. “The aggressive tactics of DPD to cover up the attempts to bring accountability to their department must end,” Taylor concluded. Taylor himself was a repeat target of DPD for his role in organizing protests. This new lawsuit by the NLG is notably separate from the previous lawsuit filed against the city.

Taxpayers Spend Hundreds of Millions Per Year On Police Brutality Settlements. That Money Could Be Better Spent.

“Reform Your Heart. And Reform Your Psychology.”

Robinson is an attorney who served as a Detroit police officer in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He has written a well-received book about the question of accountability around police violence. He emphasized that the lawsuit seeks injunctive relief rather than compensatory damages, as an attempt to develop accountability. Citing his own time on the force, well before the age of “less lethal” ammunition and body cameras, Robinson views the issue as one of pervasive organizational psychology. Change, he says, has to come from the top down.

“Officers are looking into the camera. They know they are being videotaped, but that doesn’t stop them. Why not examine the psychology behind that? Don’t just say ‘we’ll stop doing chokeholds.’ I guarantee you, if you eliminate chokeholds, police officers … will find another way to kill you […] That’s not what we’re hearing from the so-called reforms that they’re talking about. [The goal is to] reform your heart. And to reform your psychology.”

Chief James Craig came under fire for cozying up to Trump Department of Justice officials, even taking a mysterious helicopter ride over the city during the peak of the protest movement and allegations of police brutality, fueling rampant speculation that the Trump Administration might intervene to violently quell protests in individual cities as it did in Lafayette Square earlier in the summer. This was just a few days before a protest in downtown Detroit, where Detroit Police fired tear gas in front of the Shinola Hotel on Woodward Avenue. Officers also allegedly brutalized legal observers during this action as well.

“The Chief of Police sets the tone for all that happens by his troops,” Robinson concluded. “Set the right tone, Chief.”

Robinson has written a book, You See a Hero, I See a Human Being, which you can find here. We will be posting followups about the NLG lawsuit against the Detroit police as they come along.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner, journalist, and social entrepreneur based in the border town of Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset.

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