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New lawsuits allege excessive force, false arrests during May 30, 2020 riot

Claims against city, county expected this week
Posted at 5:41 PM, May 26, 2021

CLEVELAND — With the first anniversary of the May 30 riots in Downtown Cleveland approaching, more than a dozen claims against Cuyahoga County and the City of Cleveland are expected to be filed this week, claiming law enforcement engaged in false arrests and used excessive force against protesters.

Civil rights attorney Sarah Gelsomino represents 15 plaintiffs expected to file the lawsuits this week.

Gelsomino described the law enforcement response that day as an "occupation."

"The police immediately responded to the protest with such incredible and unjustified violence and aggression, it was completely unjustified," said Gelsomino.

Shainna Bernard is one of Gelsomino's clients.

Bernard said she was sprayed with mace twice, and later arrested just seconds after learning from someone in the crowd that a curfew had been enacted.

"Two of the gentlemen grab me," said Bernard, "the first one smacked the camera out of my hand and they zip-tied my hands."

Bernard said she spent more than two days in jail on a charge that was later dismissed.

The 30-year-old Cleveland woman said she believed rather than targeting demonstrators who became violent, officers outside the Justice Center became aggressive with the entire crowd.

"I’ll never hate you for being a cop," said Bernard. "We need cops, right? We need people to protect and serve, but that’s your job. Your job is 'protect and serve.' Not react. You cannot incite violence."

An internal review of Cleveland police's response confirmed officers were overwhelmed at the Justice Center and that there weren't enough officers in other parts of Downtown.

RELATED: Cleveland releases after-action report for May 30 protest that details police missteps

It also noted officers faced a shortage of riot gear.

While a separate report by a federal monitoring team found violations of police policy in the issuing of dispersal orders to the crowd, as well as in officers reporting use of force.

RELATED: Monitoring team report finds Cleveland police violated policies during and after May 30 riot

It also cited a lack of community engagement by police leading up to the demonstration.

However, the monitoring team did confirm allegations by officers that they were hit with a variety of hard objects before the initial use of pepper spray against the crowd.

A Cleveland police spokesperson declined a request to interview Chief Calvin Williams, and instead referred back to the department's report on the response.

At the time, Williams supported his officers' actions.

"From what went on that day, and what the officers were faced with, being attacked, I think our officers did a very good job," said Williams in December.

It's an assessment that Bernard can't believe.

"I find myself using the colloquialisms of the Black matriarchs, like 'Child, please,'" said Bernard. "If you believe that what took place was merited down there, you have no right to be working in public service."

The city already settled one lawsuit involving a woman who said she was peacefully protesting when Cleveland police officers pepper-sprayed her in the face.

That same officer is named in another federal lawsuit by a man who said he was trying to de-escalate tensions when the policeman hit him three times in the legs with a baton.

Cleveland police said Wednesday that the officer's actions were still under review.