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Richmond judge denies ACLU request to bar police from using chemical irritants

Posted at 12:35 PM, Jun 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-30 18:36:18-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- A Richmond judge denied an emergency request from the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union to bar police in the state from using chemical irritants or other devices to disperse protesters.

Lawyers from the VACLU argued in a Richmond court Monday that law enforcement's use of force went too far and violated protesters’ constitutional rights to speech by using the chemicals to disperse a protest outside city hall on June 23.

A city attorney said barring use of such devices is an impediment to police, according to the Associated Press.

Judge Beverly W. Snukals agreed.

"An injunction would constitute an unwarranted intrusion into and interference with the ability of law enforcement to do its job during an unprecedented period of civil unrest," Judge Snukals wrote in her opinion.

Police declared a "sit-in" gathering unlawful after they say rioters threw rocks at officers, blocked traffic, and set up tents in front of entrances to buildings.

Police later used tear gas, pepper spray, flash grenades, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

Protesters said they gathered that night outside City Hall to "learn more about police brutality and racial inequality, hear from community advocates and participate in workshops."

Police made 12 arrests.

The ACLU released a statement Tuesday afternoon calling the judge's decision disappointing.

"Today, the court denied our request for a temporary restraining order that would have ordered the Richmond Police Department (RPD) and Virginia State Police (VSP) to stop declaring “unlawful assemblies” without merit and using tear gas and other tools of war against protesters.

We’re disappointed with the court’s decision and we will continue to fight in court to bring justice to people who are speaking out against systemic, anti-Black racism by continuing to pursue this lawsuit on behalf of the Virginia Student Power Network and individual protestors. While the court’s opinion suggests that the appointment of yet another new police chief in Richmond leaves open the possibility that the tactics of police might change, we fear the violent police response to protesters will remain the same as the faces in the chief’s uniform have changed.

We’re also disappointed that the court raised questions about whether Virginians have a right to challenge in state courts unconstitutional police actions and violations of their civil rights under the Virginia constitution. We call on the General Assembly to take action at their upcoming special session to ensure that there is an unquestioned right to sue on constitutional and civil rights claims in state court.

The excessive use of force seen night after night in Richmond must end. As the lawsuit continues, we call on Gov. Ralph Northam to stop the violence by rescinding the regulations at the Lee Monument and directing VSP to allow people to gather undisturbed. Instead of seeking peace, the governor has doubled down on police use of force. As we were in court fighting on behalf of these protesters, the governor was signing an executive order to extend to July 30 his expansive endorsement of the tactics police have been using and authorization to use the Virginia National Guard to increase the militarized presence in our neighborhoods.

It is time for the governor, the mayor and the heads of the Richmond, State and Capitol police to deescalate the police response and direct their attention to addressing the systemic anti-Black racism in the city and within their ranks that has been called out by the protestors. Now is the time to work with the community to reimagine the role of policing, divest from police and reinvest in solution-oriented community programs, rather than continuing to use unjustified force to curtail protesters’ constitutional rights."

CBS 6 reached out to the City of Richmond for comment on the case. City spokeperson Jim Nolan sent us a statement that read:

"Per the advice of the Office of the City Attorney, the city does not publicly comment on pending or ongoing litigation."

CBS 6 also requested a comment from Richmond Police. Spokesperson James Mercante says "The Department will not be releasing a statement on this matter."

Dana Schrad, Executive Director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, defended the use of tear gas.

"It’s important that the use of chemical agents be closely studied before being removed from use by law enforcement. They are key components in the use of force continuum to allow law enforcement to address unlawful assemblies without resorting to close contact uses of force," Schrad wrote in a statement.

Anthony Fisher said he was tear gassed during the June 23 protest.

"It gets in your skin, it burns, make you sweat, your vision is blurry," he described. "I think there are other ways they can implement their force."

He hoped protesters and police could meet in the middle and compromise.

"No matter what happens with the protesters, the police have a responsibility to ensure the public safety. They need to set the right example and show the citizens what should happen. Tear gassing them is not the right example," Fisher explained.

Carlton Webb is a member of the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, an organization aimed at disrupting mass incarceration at its source through police policies and procedures, according to their website. He was also present during the sit-in at what protesters have dubbed "Reclamation Square."

"The chemicals, people with respiratory problem during COVID-19? Come on? How can that judge not grant that injunction?" he asked.