In an unprecedented settlement, the city of Philadelphia has agreed to pay $9.25 million to 343 protesters who were injured by police violence during the 2020 protests for racial justice.
The announcement comes on the heels of another landmark settlement, reached earlier this month by New York City and the New York Police Department, which allocated $7 million to more than 300 protesters who were arrested and beaten in 2020 at a demonstration in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx.
The two settlements are both historic in their size and implications for future lawsuits against police violence. Crucially, both cases relied on forensic reconstructions of the events, using video footage and eyewitness accounts to craft detailed timelines of police abuses.
As technology advances and video footage of protests abounds, it’s becoming easier for protesters to win class-action lawsuits and settlements against cities and their police departments. While few staunch critics of the criminal justice system think the cases will drastically overhaul how policing is done, the record settlements in Philadelphia and Mott Haven demonstrate how powerful forensic reconstructions are for providing public evidence of police abuses — and giving its victims some form of redress.
Work from groups like SITU Research, which conducts visual investigations focused on justice and civil liberties, and Forensic Architecture, a group based in London that does research on state violence, has helped make otherwise esoteric forensic techniques meaningful to ordinary people.
“The capability to recreate and show the sequence of events that SITU demonstrated in this video compilation in our case would be really invaluable in showing courts and juries the actions of police in responding to public protest,” said Luke Largess, an attorney in a pending lawsuit brought by protesters against Charlotte, North Carolina, police officials. The case cites a June 2021 visual investigation by SITU and The Intercept. “It is a really powerful tool for showing what actually occurred.”
Eventually, policing critics hope, communities will see that police departments, cities, and municipalities are having to spend huge amounts of public funds to provide restitution, thanks to the proof provided by reconstructions. The Mott Haven settlement is a critical step in the arc of recognition and, eventually, accountability, SITU Research Director Brad Samuels told The Intercept.
“Whether it is monetary damages or injunctive relief (or both), legal settlements are the tail end of this arc,” said Samuels, “forcing police departments, politicians, and taxpayers to pay attention and confront the need for change.”
The Mott Haven video reconstruction, created by Human Rights Watch and SITU, spelled out a chaotic and confusing situation in plain language: NYPD officers deliberately rounded up, beat, and arrested protesters, medics, and clearly identified legal observers. The tactic, called kettling, is often used to trap protesters outside so that they can’t abide by city-imposed curfews. In this case, police brutalized and arrested more than 230 people.
Forensic reconstructions have also played an important role in at least two other cases related to police misconduct during the 2020 protests. An earlier lawsuit against Charlotte and its then-chief of police settled in July 2022, with the settlement terms banning several of the tactics depicted in an American Civil Liberties Union video reconstruction, including kettling and the use of tear gas on protesters.
And in November 2022, the city of Portland, Oregon, agreed to pay $250,000 plus attorney fees to five people who claimed that police indiscriminately deployed tear gas against them during a peaceful protest. A SITU video analysis helped prove police used weapons against protesters that had been restricted by federal court order.
But while the deluge of video evidence will likely aid plaintiffs in similar lawsuits, the implications for police conduct are less clear cut — especially while those suits are paid out with taxpayer dollars.
“When a victim of police brutality wins a lawsuit, the police who are involved in that brutality aren’t the ones paying the settlement,” said Jay Aronson, founder and director of the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He added that the lawsuits might heighten the public’s scrutiny of law enforcement misconduct, but unless police departments or officials are made to shoulder the financial burden, they’re unlikely to change their tactics.
“I don’t think all of this work is going to have much of an impact on policing,” said Aronson. “But it does make it easier for people who have been harmed to sue to get settlements from cities and other municipalities.”
In an ideal world, Aronson said, police and elected officials would look at reconstructions like the videos from Philadelphia or Mott Haven and have some sort of awakening that changes their approach. “But that’s not typically what happens,” he said.
“There was a moment of Black Lives Matter where white liberals and even many white conservatives realized how racist and horrible our policing system is in this country and went out on the streets and protested. And very quickly, there’s been a retreat from the defund the police movement, from real meaningful reform or abolition at the mainstream level,” Aronson said. Three years after George Floyd’s murder, most people now understand the concept of abolition, which shows how much the conversation has advanced. “But, certainly, we haven’t gotten to the point where policing has actually changed in a meaningful way.”