Calif. city to pay $1.9 million to people injured during George Floyd protests
The settlement is the largest in the city's history involving a civil rights lawsuit and the Santa Rosa Police Department
By Nashelly Chavez
The Press Democrat
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The city of Santa Rosa will pay $1.9 million to five people injured in protests that followed the death of George Floyd, including a man whose face was shattered by a sting ball grenade.
The settlement is the largest in the city's history involving a civil rights lawsuit and the Santa Rosa Police Department, City Attorney Sue Gallagher confirmed through a city spokeswoman Friday.
Marqus Martinez and Michaela Staggs filed the lawsuit last year, saying they were peacefully protesting and filming police when they were injured by so-called "less lethal" projectiles fired by officers. Three other plaintiffs later joined the suit.
News of the settlement came as the City Council is set to discuss next week a 23-page report that reviewed how police responded during the first, heated wave of protests in the wake of Floyd's death on Memorial Day.
The report critiques the Police Department's use of "less-lethal" munitions, such as deploying a canister of "barricade" rounds that were not authorized to be used against protesters. One such round struck a protester in the groin, severely injuring him. That protester settled a different lawsuit against the city for $200,000.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers said he and the rest of the City Council approved the settlement in closed session after learning details about the lawsuit from the city's legal staff and watching related body-worn camera footage.
"I think (the community) will see that the city is trying to own up to what they didn't do well," Rogers said of the settlement. "Now it's time to have a conversation about policy reforms."
The settlement was approved in closed session on April 20, according to city spokeswoman Adriane Mertens.
Izaak Schwaiger, the Sebastopol attorney representing the five people who filed suit, said the purpose of the legal action was twofold.
"One is to make whole the people who were injured. Some of these people suffered substantial injuries that will take them years to recover from," he said. "Second, we're hoping this will have a significant deterrent effect on officers' behavior. Frankly, this was beyond the pale."
Improved guidelines for officers preparing for protest duty would help defuse situations in the future, Schwaiger said.
"Horrific acts of violence by police in this country aren't slowing down, so there will be reactions to them on the streets. It's entirely predictable. If it's predictable it's preventable," he said. "There were no defined rules of engagement; officers were left to their own individual subjective determinations of when to engage civilians with force, which is wildly unconstitutional."
Schwaiger asked his clients not to speak to The Press Democrat or other media outlets about the settlement, he said, because the settlement is not yet final.
"It's not advisable legally (for them) to make statements," he said. "I understand that this requires approval by the City Council and the city's insurance carrier. We expect both of those things to happen."
Martinez, a Santa Rosa resident who had previously settled a brutality claim against the Sonoma County Jail, required multiple facial surgeries as a result of his injuries. Staggs was struck just over her left eye with a projectile, leaving a wound that required several stitches to close.
Three other plaintiffs — including a man who said he was struck by baton-wielding officers multiple times after he had been protesting officers' dragging of another protester who had been sitting with their arms in the air — were named in an updated version of the complaint.
Along with Santa Rosa Police Chief Rainer Navarro and the city of Santa Rosa, who were named as defendants in the initial filing, Santa Rosa officers Michael Paetzold, Nick Vercelli, Justin McLean and Michael Cameron Erion were also named in the updated version of the lawsuit.
Navarro declined to comment about the settlement through an agency spokesman. Earlier in the day before news of the settlement broke, he talked about the report about the department's tactics during the protests, released late Wednesday.
"Did we make errors? Yes, we did," Navarro said. "But we have committed to correcting everything we can to ensure that those don't happen again. We are committed to this process."
The injuries occurred in the initial days following the killing of Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who earlier this month was convicted of murdering Floyd.
Petaluma resident Jacob Beckman, a resident of Petaluma who works in IT, reported being shoved by an officer during the demonstration as he stepped between police and two protesters who were on the ground with their hands raised.
Beckman protested when an officer dragged one of the seated protesters away, resulting in officers striking him with batons.
Officers McLean and Eiron then pulled Beckman toward the police line and struck him in the stomach, back and lower extremities, the complaint said.
An unidentified officer pointed the barrel of a rifle at his crotch and another officer used a knife to cut his backpack off his body after he was handcuffed. Beckman was arrested and spent 11 hours at the Sonoma County Jail, though local prosecutors declined to file any charges against him, the lawsuit said.
That same night, Kimberly Barbosa Soeiro, a preschool teacher and activist from west Sonoma County who was working as a street medic during the protest, rushed to Old Courthouse Square after seeing a group of marchers being tear-gassed by police via a livestreamed video.
Soeiro, who had participated in the protest earlier that day but had split off to grab something to eat, said she was met with "clouds of gas" as she arrived in the area, causing her throat, eyes and nose to burn, the report said. Police deployed seven canisters of tear gas before she made it back to her car.
Among those tear-gassed was Santa Rosa Junior College professor Dani Burlison of Santa Rosa, the fifth plaintiff in the complaint.
Burlison reported being tear-gassed three times in the span of less than two hours late May 30 as she and her daughter participated in protests.
The tear gas caused her to feel as if she were suffocating under her mask as the chemical burned her eyes and face. Because she has an autoimmune disorder that makes her vulnerable to skin irritants, the chemical caused her to develop a painful skin rash on her face that took more than a week to heal.
"People all around her were crying and screaming and coughing, and had removed their protective masks to try to breathe," the lawsuit said. "Children were vomiting in the street."
The five plaintiffs will split the settlement pool. Details about how the money would be split, or the amount of attorney fees that would be deducted from the settlement, were not immediately available.
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