Wednesday, February 21

DOJ reaches settlement in 2020 cases involving Lafayette Square protesters

The Justice Department has reached a settlement in four cases stemming from law enforcement’s response to racial justice demonstrations in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, just days after George Floyd’s murder.

As part of the settlement, the United States Park Police agreed to review its policies governing demonstrations and special events.

The new policy, released Wednesday, requires officers, except personnel in plain clothes, to be “clearly identifiable” as Park Police personnel, with fully visible badges and nameplates on outerwear, tactical gear and helmets. The policy also laid out new guidelines concerning the use of non-lethal force, such as prioritizing de-escalation tactics and seeking senior approval before deploying defense equipment.

The settlement follows a report last year by the Interior Department’s inspector general, Mark Greenblatt, who conducted the review after a largely peaceful demonstration in Lafayette Square turned violent after police moved in. His report concluded that when federal police officers cleared protesters from the square on June 1, 2020, they did so in consultation with now-former Attorney General William Barr, in order to let a contractor install fencing — not to let then-President Donald Trump hold a photo opportunity at a nearby church.

But Greenblatt also said it was likely that many of the people gathered in the square did not hear police dispersal warnings, and that the Secret Service began its advance before the Park Police were able to issue their warnings. He also found that Washington, DC, police fired tear gas at the protesters, taking Park Police by surprise.

That lack of coordination appeared to be reflected in the new policy announced Wednesday, which provides guidelines for planning and communication between law enforcement agencies.

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The Secret Service, which reported one of its agents had used pepper spray during the June 1 protests, agreed to include language discouraging “blanket” use-of-force and other tactics in a crowd, in a revision of its previous policy.

“The fact that some individuals in a crowd have engaged in unlawful conduct does not normally provide blanket grounds for use-of-force countermeasures, crowd dispersal, or declaration of an unlawful assembly,” the new policy will state, according to a copy of the settlement.

As part of the agreement, the plaintiffs, including Black Lives Matter DC and others who participated in the protests, agreed to dismiss their claims against the agencies.

“These changes to agency policies for protest responses will strengthen our commitment to protecting and respecting constitutionally protected rights,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement Wednesday.

National Park Service Director Chuck Sams added that he hoped his agency’s new policy would act as a model for upholding civil rights and facilitating safe demonstrations.

“It is good for the public and good for our officers,” Sams said in a statement. “The United States Park Police is committed to ensuring people can gather safely to express our most fundamental and cherished right to free speech.”

NBC News has reached out to Black Lives Matter DC for comment.

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