Philly’s settlement a win for protesters; police reform fight continues | Michael Coard

This was a ‘truly unique civil rights lawsuit’ because it sought more than mere money

March 26, 2023 6:30 am
Protesters during the 2020 George Floyd protests in Philadelphia (Photo courtesy of Michael Coard).

Protesters during the 2020 George Floyd protests in Philadelphia (Photo courtesy of Michael Coard).

On March 20, after two years of intense negotiation following the filing of a truly unique civil rights lawsuit, the Hough Team of attorneys, along with three other teams consisting of some of the most skilled lawyers in the Commonwealth, announced a $9.25 million settlement with the city of Philadelphia, which is the largest protest-related settlement of its kind in Pennsylvania history.

The Hough Team, named after the plaintiff who was the most brutally assaulted among each of the hundreds of seriously injured plaintiffs by Philadelphia police during the George Floyd protests on May 31 and June 1 of 2020, included attorneys Paul J. Hetznecker, Kevin V. Mincey, Riley H. Ross III, Marni Jo Snyder, and yours truly Michael Coard. Together, the Hough Team represented about 240 of the approximately 350 plaintiffs- the most of all four teams of attorneys.

This historic settlement stems from military-style police assaults on non-protesting homeowners and residents in West Philadelphia in the area of 52nd and Locust Streets on May 31, 2020 and from military-style police assaults on peaceful protesters on I-676 at the Vine Street Expressway on June 1, 2020. 

It was a 48-hour riot by police who violently used military-style equipment and munitions including armored vehicles, tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bang devices, and so-called “rubber” bullets that are capable of causing fatalities or horrific injuries under certain circumstances.

For example, one of the Hough Team plaintiffs was an elderly grandmother from West Philly who was walking from home to pick up her young granddaughters on May 31, 2020 when she was shot in the face with one of those “rubber” bullets and was nearly blinded.

Philly to pay record settlement for police misconduct in 2020 protests

I describe this lawsuit as a “truly unique civil rights lawsuit” because it sought more than mere money.

Although we are pleased to have been part of the legal teams that made history with this nearly $10 million settlement, we were- and still are- actually more concerned with seeking substantive police reforms that would end the city’s “warrior policing model” and that would hold brutal police officers personally liable.

Unfortunately, those reforms weren’t achieved, at least not in this particular litigation. But stay tuned regarding future developments. After all, this type of “truly unique civil rights” litigation approach is just the first step. There are many more to come.

I interviewed the Hough Team members regarding their thoughts about this historic case. Here are their responses.

Hetznecker: “The murder of George Floyd ignited nationwide protests for racial justice that sparked a closer examination of institutional racism within police departments across the country, along with a renewed effort to establish democratic accountability over policing. Mr. Floyd’s murder did not change the response of law enforcement in Philadelphia. The peaceful protests that occurred on May 31, 2020 and June 1, 2020 were met with violent and brutal military-style attacks.”

Mincey: “Police officers meeting peaceful protests on behalf of Black people by using excessive force is deeply embedded in American history. This result should serve as a cautionary tale to cities and their police officers that not only will violent tactics of the past continue to fail but the cost of them doing business as usual will continue to rise. It has been a tremendous honor to represent these clients and we stand ready to defend their rights the next time police choose to act beyond what is permissible by the Constitution.” 

Ross: “This settlement comes at an ideal time to remind our city leaders and those vying to lead our city of the history this city has with police brutality. At a time when many are calling for more police, larger police budgets, and even a return to “stop and frisk,” we must not forget that a few short years ago, the Philadelphia Police responded to peaceful protests against police brutality by committing devastating and horrific police brutality.”  

Snyder: “I am a proud ally of everyone everywhere seeking social justice. A deep allyship and solidarity were and still are powerful and present among our clients and our legal team. It is an allyship for racial justice, social change, and law enforcement cultural change that led many of our clients onto the streets on May 31 and June 1 of 2020 after the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain. Empathy, solidarity, and justifiable anger led them to the 52nd Street corridor and 676 to speak truth to power …. This settlement is the beginning. Our legal team and clients call on the police department to ban all so-called “less-than-lethal” weapons against protesters, change their use-of-force protocols to weave in the preference for de-escalation …, and do so in training …. We call on the soon-to-be elected officials to do everything in their power to encourage these reforms whether it be in the budget process or other ways. Finally, we encourage the police to cooperate with and city government to support and fund the new Citizens Police Oversight Commission.”   

I should mention that instead of quoting myself, I’ll simply quote the great Charles Hamilton Houston, Esquire- the ingenious strategist who laid the foundation for the civil rights litigation of the 1950s and 1960s. He said: “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.”

The Hough Team chooses to be social engineers. Stay tuned.

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Michael Coard
Michael Coard

Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @michaelcoard.