Detroit police investigate abuse allegations from weekend protest

August 23, 2020, 3:38 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

Update, 3:04 p.m. Monday, Aug. 24:

Protesters say they were abused by Detroit police Saturday during an otherwise peaceful demonstration against the increased federal law enforcement presence in the city. 

At least 42 demonstrators were arrested around midnight folllowing a showdown with police in riot gear on Woodward Avenue downtown.

Police say demonstrators shut down the road at John R with construction barriers and were arrested for blocking traffic and disorderly conduct. In a Monday news conference, Chief James Craig said the department feared the demonstrators' goal was to create a "Seattle-type zone of lawlessness," pointing to an Instagram post in which the group Detroit Will Breathe said it would "occupy" the area "until the feds leave."

Video showed officers deploy tear gas and hit demonstrators with batons ahead of the series of arrests. Craig said Monday that police force is justified when protesters resist. At least three officers are under investigation by the department's Professional Standards Section for their actions, he said.

Craig said Monday that "the department takes any and all allegations of misconduct seriously," but in a Detroit News interview Sunday he said demonstrators' claims were "completely false and inaccurate."

Social media posts show a number of questionable uses of force. In one, a police officer appears to pepper-spray a demonstrator at close range while they're held down by other officers. In another, an officer appears to hit a demonstrator on or near his head with a baton and force him down. The man's hands are zip-tied behind his back at the time.

(Craig disputed the characterization of the second incident, saying the "officer never struck that individual.")

Another video showed demonstrators and officers shoving one another in a plume of tear gas, with one officer hitting someone in the legs with a night stick and shoving them down. Police do not appear to attempt to make arrests in the video.

The first two incidents were forward to the department's Professional Standards Section for review. The section has determined the officer who hit the zip-tied protester with a baton did not hit him over the head, Craig said. 

Craig said demonstrators ignored multiple warnings to disperse. One demonstrator had a laser and another deployed an unidentified gas, he added. Law enforcement officers elsewhere in the country have reported sustaining eye injuries from lasers.

Initially, on Sunday, police spokeswoman Sergeant Nicole Kirkwood said the demonstrators threw rocks and water bottles at officers. Craig said Monday that department officials had received no such reports from officers. 

In an Instagram post, the group Detroit Will Breathe, which has been hosting near nightly protests against police brutality this summer, called the police violence "unprovoked."

A legal observer and reporter were among those arrested, according to the National Lawyers Guild. The legal observer was wearing a bright green legal observer hat as identification. Detroit police have created large badges for memembers of the media covering the ongoing demonstrations, though it's not known if the reporter was wearing one. Police stopped issuing the badges last month, but resumed on Sunday.

When asked about those arrests, Craig said "should leave the area" when officers issue warnings for protesters to disperse.

Officers last clashed with protesters following the fatal police shooting of 20-year-old Hakim Littleton, who shot at officers first, on July 10. Two police SUVs plowed into demonstrators who crowded around their vehicles approximately two weeks before that.

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