A federal judge ordered police in Denver on Friday to temporarily stop using tear gas, rubber bullets and other “less-than-lethal” forces like flash grenades during protests. The order comes following a class-action lawsuit against the city of Denver and the Denver Police Department.
The plaintiffs in the suit alleged the Denver police used excessive force against activists protesting police brutality in the city. Protests have erupted nationwide for more than a week following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The ruling cited examples, captured on video, of police injuring mostly peaceful protesters and journalists without giving any warnings to disperse, violating their First and Fourth Amendment rights.
The judge’s order temporarily prevents police officers from using chemical weapons or projectiles, unless approved by a superior on the scene in response to acts of violence or destruction of property.
The order specifically prohibits officers from aiming projectiles randomly into crowds or at an individual protester’s head, pelvis or back. Pepper spray, tear gas and other chemical agents cannot be used under any circumstances until after protesters are given time to comply with police orders.
It also instructs officers to record using a body camera at all times and specifically prohibits obstruction of the camera. The order applies to all agencies responding to protests in Denver.
The Denver PD said on Twitter late Friday night that they will comply with the restrictions. However, the department also tweeted that it is asking for modifications to the order for the use of body cameras.
A spokesperson for the department told CBS Denver that officers typically use body cameras on what is considered an on-needed basis due to limits over the battery life of the devices. They said they are also seeking clarification on the authorization of the use of force by superiors.
Judge R. Brooke Jackson said the department “failed in its duty to police its own.”
“Peaceful demonstrators’ legitimate and credible fear of police retaliation is silencing their political speech—the very speech most highly valued under the First Amendment,” Jackson wrote.
“Although I do not agree with those who have committed property damage during the protests, property damage is a small price to pay for constitutional rights—especially the constitutional right of the public to speak against widespread injustice. If a store’s windows must be broken to prevent a protester’s facial bones from being broken or eye being permanently damaged, that is more than a fair trade. If a building must be graffiti-ed to prevent the suppression of free speech, that is a fair trade. The threat to physical safety and free speech outweighs the threat to property.”
Milo Schwab, an attorney for four of the plaintiffs, told Reuters that the ruling was “a humbling victory.”
“This will ensure that people protesting police brutality are not subject to police brutality,” he said. “Demonstrators in Denver are now safer from police brutality than anywhere else in the country.”