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ACLU sues DC, police officers over tactics used on journalists covering BLM protests

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the Washington, D.C., government and a group of Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers who allegedly used chemical irritants and stun grenades on photojournalists and racial justice protesters last August. 

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of photojournalists Oyoma Asinor and Bryan Dozier, argued that MPD officers who responded to protests at Black Lives Matter Plaza on Aug. 29 and Aug. 31 used “batons, deployed chemical irritants and stun grenades against demonstrators.”

The civil rights organization said the incidents came just weeks after “the D.C. Council had unanimously banned officers from using these weapons to disperse demonstrations.” 

The emergency police reform bill signed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) in late July 2020 stated that MPD is prohibited from using “chemical irritants” to disperse protesters, including any “tear gas or any chemical that can rapidly produce sensory irritation or disabling physical effects in humans, which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure, or any substance prohibited by the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction.”

The lawsuit alleged that both Asinor and Dozier were “victims of the attack,” on Aug. 29, and that Asinor was again “similarly attacked on August 31.” 

The group argued that both journalists “endured searing pain and emotional distress as a result.” 

On Aug. 31, the lawyers argued that Asinor was among the group of people detained by MPD officers in a mass arrest, though the ACLU said that police “did not have probable cause to arrest Mr. Asinor.” 

“Mr. Asinor was not involved in any conduct that was unlawful or that could reasonably have been viewed as unlawful,” the complaint continued. “Nonetheless, officers detained Mr. Asinor overnight.”

The ACLU said that upon Asinor’s release, “MPD refused to return his cell phone, camera, and goggles— items officers had seized upon his arrest.” 

“MPD did not return these items for almost a full year, even though he requested them multiple times, and MPD had no lawful basis to keep them,” the ACLU argued. 

Megan Yan, an attorney with the ACLU’s D.C. office, said in a statement Thursday, “MPD flagrantly used tactics that D.C. laws explicitly ban,” adding, “It’s especially ironic that MPD responded to these demonstrations with the kind of violence that the protestors were protesting.”

The Hill has reached out to MPD and the D.C. mayor’s office for comment. 

The move comes after the ACLU last week released a letter calling on the Justice Department to  enact permanent protections for journalists and legal observers at protests after several journalists reported sustaining injuries while covering the civil unrest across the country in the wake of the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd. 

The ACLU urged the DOJ to put in place measures like prohibiting federal agents from arresting or using physical force against journalists and legal observers. 

Tags ACLU D.C. Metropolitan police Muriel Bowser photojournalist police batons police use of force tear gas use of force Washington D.C.

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