On July 14 2020, LDF, the Abolitionist Law Center, and the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents in a predominantly Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia, challenging the Philadelphia Police Department’s (PPD) excessive and unwarranted use of militaristic force during a peaceful protest. Residents captured the scene on video. LDF and co-counsel’s case is one of four cases arising out of the police violence directed at residents and protestors in West Philadelphia and the I-676 highway in Philadelphia – the other cases by additional law firms and lawyers include Weltch, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, Hough, et al. v City of Philadelphia, and Zolitor, et al. v. City of Philadelphia.
On May 31, 2020, as protesters gathered in the 52nd and Market Street area of West Philadelphia (the “52nd Street Community”), the PPD arrived en masse in armored vehicles, in response to limited reports of isolated looting. Without provocation, police unleashed a variety of dangerous military-style munitions, including rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray, against protesters, residents, and bystanders throughout the neighborhood. This dangerous force was not limited to the stores, or even the street, where the looting had allegedly occurred. Officers in full body armor and tanks went up and down residential streets in the neighborhood, launching tear gas canisters and firing rubber bullets at residents and passersby who were doing nothing more than sitting on their porches or walking home from work, causing residents—including elderly residents and children—to seek shelter at home or wherever they could nearby.
For residents, an otherwise peaceful, residential community had become a war zone as police in military equipment occupied the neighborhood for hours, chasing residents into their homes and indiscriminately firing canisters of tear gas at them— all under the guise of responding to incidents of looting. Many residents were seriously injured, requiring medical treatment and in some cases hospitalization. Some residents were forced to evacuate their own homes after tear gas entered through windows or under doorways.
The complaint filed by LDF on July 14 2020 establishes that the use of militarized police violence against the 52nd Street Community violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unwarranted seizures and excessive force and their Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from racially discriminatory treatment by the police. The complaint also alleges that the police used excessive force in retaliation against protestors for exercising their First Amendment Rights to free speech and assembly.
During the same weekend that PPD terrorized residents in West Philadelphia, PPD officers did not use any force in other predominately white neighborhoods where looting occurred. Notably, while the city of Philadelphia apologized for using tear gas on another more racially diverse group of protesters gathered on Interstate 676 on June 1– and subsequently put a moratorium on the use of tear gas– the city hardly acknowledged the militarized police violence against 52nd Street Community Black residents on May 31. This disparate treatment of Philadelphia residents by PPD epitomizes the very racial discrimination that motivated the protests in the first place.
Over the past few years, a wave of policing-related bills and policies have been introduced on the local, state, and federal levels. In state legislatures alone, 3,000 policing-related bills were introduced in response to the summer of protests. LDF compiled an index of the efforts by states and cities to address police accountability and transform public safety.
Police violence against Black communities continued to unfold during negotiations with the City of Philadelphia. On October 26, two PPD officers fatally shot Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man experiencing a mental health crisis, in the same neighborhood as the May 31st protests. Community members who gathered to protest Mr. Wallace’s death were once again met with unwarranted and excessive police violence. In the direct aftermath of these renewed protests, the local U.S. attorney’s office brought criminal charges against our named plaintiff in addition to others who were allegedly involved in vandalizing public property stemming from the May 31st protests.
On March 20, 2023, LDF, the Abolitionist Law Center, and the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP announced an unprecedented settlement with the City of Philadelphia for the Philadelphia Police Department’s (PPD) excessive, militaristic use of force against protesters in 2020. Under the settlement terms for all four cases, the City of Philadelphia has agreed to pay monetary damages totaling $9,250,000 collectively to those harmed by the PPD’s conduct in the summer of 2020, one of the largest settlements of its kind in Philadelphia history. Additionally, the City has disengaged from the 1033 program, a federal program which arms state and local law enforcement with military weapons and equipment. Under the settlement, the City has committed to meet every six months with the West Philadelphia community to present data around the Department’s use of force and respond to questions and comments from the community. Finally, the City has also agreed to commit $500,000 to a fund that will provide interdisciplinary, trauma-informed counseling to victims of police violence and provide support for and promote community-led programming in the aftermath of police violence and misconduct. The funds will be distributed through a community-led grantmaking process administered by Bread & Roses.
Today, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), co-counsel Covington &