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Baltimore Bloc and Baltimore City Police settle case over unlawful arrests and harsh detention

For Immediate Release
October 16, 2018

Chris Comeau, Email; Baltimore Bloc, Email, 443-603-2028
Debra Gardner, Public Justice Center, Email, 410-625-9409, ext. 228

BALTIMORE – A lawsuit filed in July 2017 seeking to hold the Baltimore City Police Department accountable for unlawfully arresting and detaining 65 people at a peaceful protest held during the Artscape festival in July 2016 has settled. The plaintiffs’ goal was policy change, and under the settlement, BPD has agreed to significant policy reforms to respect rights to free speech and protest and treatment of people in police custody.

Members of the community organizing group Baltimore Bloc and others arrested during the protest alleged that they were held handcuffed for six to eighteen hours in deplorable conditions and charged without legal justification. According to the complaint: Baltimore Bloc had organized a peaceful march, called Afromation, in downtown Baltimore on July 16, 2016, to protest police mistreatment of African-Americans. The 65 were arrested after a handful of people entered Interstate 83 via a ramp already closed for Artscape. Police assured those protesters that no one would be arrested if people left the highway. Despite compliance, police then trapped everyone who was on the ramp, including bystanders (nearly half of the group) and legal observers, and began a mass arrest. Those arrested were issued citations that the State’s Attorney’s Office dropped a few days later. BPD denied the allegations and liability in the case.

Ralikh Hayes, one of the plaintiffs, described how police treated those arrested: “On a day when it was over 90 degrees, police held us in hot, cramped police vans with little to no access to water, food, toilets, or medications. One person even threw up and fainted because of the heat. The handcuffs were so tight and on for so long that many people lost feeling in their hands and shoulders for several days.”

Today’s settlement is a small step toward achieving Bloc’s and other community activists’ goals in creating a safer Baltimore, including for the free exercise of the right to criticize the government. In addition to compensating the plaintiffs for their injuries, BPD has agreed to significant changes in its policies and protocols, including prohibiting indiscriminate “kettling” of protesters and requiring officers to issue and document clear warnings to disperse and a reasonable opportunity to comply before initiating arrests at demonstrations. The new policies also place reasonable constraints on police reaction to protests, requiring de-escalation practices and acknowledging that not all acts of civil disobedience warrant arrest. They also spell out appropriate police conduct during interactions with members of the LGBTQ community, and bar lengthy and harsh detention conditions such as alleged in the suit. What remains to be seen is whether the policy changes will result in the necessary culture shift within BPD.

The new policies must be approved by the federal court in the context of the monitoring of the US DOJ consent decree with BPD. However, members of the monitoring team and Judge James Bredar recently applauded the plaintiffs for their constructive input through the policies they negotiated.

Debra Gardner, attorney for the plaintiffs and Legal Director at the Public Justice Center, described why this case was important: “BPD’s targeting of protesters because they exercised their right to free speech to call attention to police mistreatment was unconstitutional, and bad policy besides, in a city where the need for police reform is well-documented and acknowledged. The treatment of those arrested during Afromation was unconscionable. The result in this case should help ensure that BPD respects everyone’s right to speak out against injustice.”

The case is Baltimore Bloc, et al v. Baltimore Police Dept, et al, Baltimore City Circuit Court Case No. 24-C-17-003680. The court signed an order approving the settlement at a hearing today.

The policies agreed to in the suit, still subject to final approval by the federal court, can be viewed here.