Philadelphia reaches $9.25m settlement over 2020 police response

More than 340 plaintiffs were awarded $9.25m over police violence during 2020 George Floyd protests.

A police van fires tear gas at a crowd in a Philadelphia street.
Police deploy tear gas to disperse a crowd during a protest in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 31, 2020 [File: Matt Rourke/AP Photo]

The United States city of Philadelphia has agreed to pay $9.25m to settle a class-action lawsuit by protesters who said that the city’s police force responded with excessive force when demonstrations broke out over the 2020 killing of George Floyd.

On Monday, the city government released a written statement saying the funds would be distributed among 343 plaintiffs. The city will also offer a $500,000 grant to the Bread and Roses Community Fund to offer mental health services for those who have suffered from police violence.

“We’ve been through the wringer, and if this can bring us to a point where we can continue to heal, it’s worth it,” said Mayor Jim Kenney.

Huge protests against police violence rocked the US in 2020 following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed when police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, pinned him to the ground and knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes as he struggled to breathe.

Looting and violence took place in some cities, but the protests were largely peaceful. In some cities, law enforcement authorities were accused of using heavy-handed techniques against peaceful protesters.

In early June 2020, videos spread on social media showing Philadelphia police firing tear gas at demonstrators who had blocked a highway. Penned in between two specialised police units, the demonstrators had nowhere to go as they were hit with tear gas, pepper spray and, some alleged, rubber bullets.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs also stated that police had turned predominantly Black neighbourhoods in Philadelphia into spaces resembling a war zone, with militarised police vehicles “indiscriminately firing canisters of tear gas” at residents.

Protests in the city included clashes with police, the burning of several police vehicles, and some instances of theft.

“Along with city, state and community stakeholders, we will continue to work non-stop towards improving what we as police do to protect the First Amendment rights of protestors, keep our communities and officers safe, and to ultimately prove that we are committed to a higher standard,” Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said in a statement.

City officials also ended their participation in a controversial programme that allows state and local law enforcement agencies to receive surplus military equipment from the federal government, which critics say has contributed to police militarisation.

A 2021 analysis by the New York Times found that police in numerous cities across the country mishandled the protests and often responded with excessive force.

Years after Floyd’s death, however, the US continues to struggle with allegations of racism and excessive police militarisation.

A 2021 study published in The Lancet medical journal found that deaths from police violence were dramatically underreported, with US national statistics failing to log 17,000 deaths from 1980 to 2018. That amounted to 55.5 percent of all police-related deaths.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies