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Judge rejects city’s plea to dismiss lawsuit over police response to protests 

click to enlarge Protesters and police clashed in Rochester on May 30, 2020 during a protest in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It was the first in a summer of Black Lives Matter protests in Rochester.

PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI

Protesters and police clashed in Rochester on May 30, 2020 during a protest in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It was the first in a summer of Black Lives Matter protests in Rochester.

A federal judge has rejected a plea from the city of Rochester to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges police officers abused their powers and engaged in racial discrimination as they responded to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.

The ruling means a class-action suit, which was filed last year by Elliot Shields of the firm Roth & Roth, can proceed.

The lawsuit named the city, former Mayor Lovely Warren, County Executive Adam Bello, and a slew of New York State Police troopers and Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputies as defendants in the lawsuit. The proceedings were filed by a coalition of activists including now-City Councilmember Stanley Martin, Pathways to Peace coordinator Anthony Hall, and the National Lawyers Guild, which provided legal observation during the protests.

In his motion requesting dismissal, city attorney Spencer Ash argued that Shields filed a lawsuit that was incoherent and salacious.

“Over 100 pages of the complaint deal with matters that are totally outside of the relevant time frame and wholly irrelevant to the plaintiffs or any prospective class of plaintiffs,” the motion read. “Quite frankly this second effort by Mr. Shields to articulate cognizable claims is ambiguous, confusing, and unintelligible. It is nearly impossible to address this word jumble of facts interspersed between 563 paragraphs.”

In a decision filed last week, New York Western District Court Judge Frank Geraci declined to take what he called the “extreme” action of dismissing a case over the questioning of Shields’ claims.

“Moreover, the city ignores that, far from being irrelevant, the newspaper articles, cartoons, and previous lawsuits actually suggest that the city was aware of but disregarded the discriminatory application of excessive force,” Geraci wrote. “It remains to be seen whether the evidence proffered in the amended complaint ultimately turns out to prove plaintiffs’ claims. But, to the extent the city argues that the evidence is insufficient at this stage, the court declines to engage in such an analysis.”

The class-action complaint argued the Rochester Police Department has fostered a “culture of brutality and impunity.” It specifically pointed to officers’ handling of the September 2020 protests that followed the release of video footage showing officers restraining Daniel Prude, who was in mental distress at the time. Prude went unconscious while he was under restraint and died days later at Strong Memorial Hospital.

“The city, in keeping with its long history, responded with the use of extreme violence and militarized police tactics — including deploying batons, tear gas, flash-bang grenades, armored vehicles, and police dogs — to intimidate the protesters,” the complaint read. “Over the course of just three days Rochester Police Department officers severely injured hundreds of protesters.”

In April, Mayor Malik Evans and Police Chief Dave Smith announced changes to the Rochester Police Department’s protocols for responding to protests. The new orders were issued to officers last week, according to a news release from the mayor’s office. The general order was released publicly this week.

In November, three attempts were made by attorneys for the defendants to dismiss the case — one each from lawyers for the city, the county, and a state trooper who was named in the suit.

Geraci did dismiss the plaintiffs’ case against the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office on the grounds that the office is “merely an administrative arm of the county.” The proceedings against Monroe County will continue.

In a statement, Shields called Geraci’s conclusion a “landmark decision.”

“The plaintiffs brought this lawsuit as to bring fundamental, community-driven changes to the way law enforcement operates in the Rochester community,” Shields said in a statement. “This landmark decision paves the way for the citizens of Rochester to fundamentally reimagine and restructure how law enforcement is deployed in service of public safety.”

City of Rochester spokesperson Barbara Pierce characterized the decision as “procedural.”

“Judge Geraci’s decision — which dismissed claims that were factually meritless — was a procedural one, and made no findings of liability,” read a statement from Pierce. “It is not at all unusual at this point in such cases for some claims to be dismissed and some allowed to move forward. We respect Judge Geraci’s decision and will move forward, in the courtroom, to defend the city in this litigation.”

A status conference on all protest-related cases is scheduled for July 21.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com
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