Two Northern California civil rights organizations and demonstrators, including a man who lost his right eye, filed a lawsuit Thursday against the city of San Jose, saying police officers used excessive force against protesters who took to the streets last year following George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis.
The lawsuit filed by NAACP San Jose/Silicon Valley and the San Jose Peace and Justice Center as a class action seeks for everyone who was injured or wrongfully arrested to be compensated and for reforms in the way San Jose police are trained and directed to police protests, said Rachel Lederman, an attorney with Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which is representing the plaintiffs.
Michael Acosta, 49, said he was returning to his downtown San Jose home from running errands on May 29 when he saw the demonstration and began taking photos and video of what was happening. Within minutes, he was struck on the eye with a projectile.
“I could hear the sounds and people running and shouting and explosions still going on around me and it was honestly terrifying. I felt helpless and afraid,” Acosta said at a videoconference.
Rachel Davis, a city spokesperson, declined to comment on pending litigation.
At least 28 people were injured as police tried to break up the crowd of about 1,000 using tear gas, flashbang grenades, rubber bullets and batons — a heavy handedness not seen in other protests in the San Francisco Bay Area that drew criticism against the police department and then-Police Chief Eddie Garcia.
Seven of those injured filed a separate federal lawsuit in July. Derrick Sanderlin, a community activist and one-time police bias trainer who was trying to deescalate the situation, was hit with a rubber bullet in the groin, the Mercury News reported. The lawsuit alleges Officer Jared Yuen, whose behavior was caught on videos that were widely viewed online, was the one who injured Sanderlin.
The crowd gathered in downtown San Jose and temporarily shut down a five-lane section of U.S. 101, a major highway, before police started dispersing them.
Garcia said officers had been targeted by coordinated, violent attacks from agitators who hid inside crowds of peaceful protesters and then turned the streets of downtown San Jose into a “war zone.” An officer was taken to a hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening.
Garcia apologized for Yuen's behavior, calling it unprofessional and saying it wouldn’t be tolerated. The officer was taken off street patrol duty.
The San Jose Police Officers Association said Thursday part of the issue with crowd control last summer was the department's lack of staffing.
“San Jose Police officers did the absolute best job they could under volatile and dangerous conditions,” the union said in a statement.
Rev. Jeff Moore, president of the local NAACP, said he was caught in the middle of the clash between police and demonstrators as he tried to ease tensions and was pushed around and gassed by officers.
“It’s been a travesty for the leadership for this city not to step out and do more for those injured, arrested wrongly or defending themselves from the aggressiveness of the police,” Moore added.
In June, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo proposed banning police from using rubber bullets in crowded settings but the City Council voted against it. The fallout from the police response, however, led Garcia to institute a policy that allows officers to use rubber bullets only when a person or an officer is being attacked.
In Los Angeles, hundreds of people were injured or accused police of violating their rights during clashes and mass arrests during racial injustice protests last summer. A report commissioned by the City Council and released Thursday found the Los Angeles Police Department failed to train officers adequately in the use of hard-foam projectile weapons. The reportalso determined commanders were sent to the streets although they did not have recent crowd-control instruction.