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Group of protesters file lawsuit against Columbus police officers for injuries

Protesters line up around Columbus Police on the corner of East Board Street and High Street during a George Floyd protest near the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio in May 30, 2020. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch/TNS]

A group of protesters, including a member of the newly established Chief’s Advisory Panel, have filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Columbus, Police Chief Thomas Quinlan and at least five other officers for injuries they say they sustained while protesting Downtown.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Columbus, seeks monetary damages for the injuries, which the filed complaint says were the result of gross negligence, violations of Constitutional rights — including First Amendment violations — and undertrained personnel.

The protests began in earnest on May 28 in response to the death of George Floyd, who died while in Minneapolis police custody, and grew to a larger movement surrounding issues of police brutality.

The lead plaintiff in the case is Tammy Fournier-Alsaada, a member of Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther’s Safety Advisory Commission and who was also appointed to the Chief’s Advisory Panel, which is to provide civilian insight and perspective on policy changes within the Division of Police.

According to the lawsuit, Fournier-Alsaada, who is an organizer for People’s Justice Project, said she was at a protest on May 30 in the Downtown area when she was informed of protesters being arrested. She said she began speaking to a police official she knew and as she was granted permission to walk through a line of officers to continue a discussion was pepper-sprayed without provocation.

“Ms. Alsaada fell to the ground due to the assault and was unable to breathe or see,” the lawsuit said. “Ms. Alsaada and numerous others suffered injuries and trauma due to the unprovoked assault by Columbus police officers.”

Fournier-Alsaada is joined in the lawsuit by 12 others, all of whom were injured or improperly arrested during the protests, according to the lawsuit.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Randy Kaigler, said he is the man seen in a viral photograph appearing to be pepper sprayed by Sgt. David Gitlitz from close range on May 29.

According to the lawsuit, Kaigler said he was standing with his hands up near the intersection of Broad and High streets and was sprayed without any audible warning being given to him.

Gitlitz, a nine-year member of the division, is named in the suit along with Officers Shawn Dye (12 years), Thomas Hammel (one year), Holly Kanode (16 years), Kenneth Kirby (26 years) and other unnamed officers, according to the paperwork filed Thursday.

Other protesters said they were hit in the face or legs with wooden pellets — including one who said a tear gas canister fractured his fibula, sprayed multiple times with pepper spray and were improperly arrested.

Many of the lawsuit’s claims are in relation to protests that occurred between May 28 and June 2. One plaintiff, Heather Wise, said she was pushed in the throat by an officer while protesting on June 21 while attempting to shield another woman from being pepper-sprayed.

Wise also claimed Columbus police officers poured vials of an unknown brown liquid on the eyes and faces of Wise and other protesters.

The plaintiffs argue police were determined to break up the protests because “many” officers and supervisors “nurse an abiding hatred for the Black Lives Matter movement, believing that it hurts the image of police and functions as a limitation on the prerogative of police to use force in keeping peace, protecting property and preserving law and order.”

In addition to monetary damages, the plaintiffs are also seeking a list of 17 other reforms including, but not limited to, the creation of a civilian review board — for which Ginther appointed a group with the purpose of having a board seated by the end of 2020, “commitment to affirmative action in recruitment, selection, retention and promotion,” scheduling meetings in minority-dominated neighborhoods to listen to civilian concerns, screening applicants for excessive force in prior military service or employment, re-screening officers for psychological fitness every three years and requiring officers who witness excessive force or retaliation to stop their colleague and report the action to the Chief and Internal Affairs.

Ginther’s office directed all questions about the lawsuit to the city attorney’s office. They also did not comment on Fournier-Alsaada’s status on the chief’s advisory panel when asked, saying they would look to the city attorney’s office for guidance.


© 2020 The Columbus Dispatch