United Nations slams Philly police as city begins settling tear gas lawsuits

The mayor’s office hasn’t reviewed the UN report, despite the rare international censure.

A protester kicks a tear gas canister fired by police during protests on Monday, June 1, 2020, in Philadelphia

A protester kicks a tear gas canister fired by police during protests on Monday, June 1, 2020, in Philadelphia

Matt Rourke / AP Photo
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The United Nations issued a recent statement pleading for U.S. cities to reform their police abuses — and cited the Philadelphia Police Department as its primary example.

The rare censure comes as the city begins settling six lawsuits over excessive force and other police misconduct last summer. The city agreed to pay out $87,000 in a suit about 52nd Street tear-gassing, another case is in talks to finalized payment amount, and four others remain ongoing.

While the UN statement was framed as a plea for “far-reaching reforms on policing and racism” in the country as a whole, the report notably focused only on Philly. It slammed the city’s failed planning in responding to the protests following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. Pulling from a recent report by the Philadelphia City Controller, the UN condemned the PPD’s use of tear gas and the “failure of leadership” at the highest level of city government.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration commissioned an independent report on the summer protests that came to many of the same conclusions as the City Controller’s report, said Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble.

The mayor’s office has not reviewed the UN report, which was released on Feb. 26.

“We know that many mistakes were made last summer, and the administration is committed to doing better,” Gamble said.

The UN has weighed in on U.S. police misconduct previously, and criticized Philadelphia on at least one prior occasion — but not to this degree. Local civil rights attorneys said it is rare for PPD misconduct and civil rights abuses to be highlighted on a global stage.

“It’s important for the international community to recognize policing in this country should be a focus of human rights inquiry,” said Paul Hetznecker, a defense attorney suing the city on behalf of 237 plaintiffs whom police tear-gassed on I-676 last year. “The UN [has been] accurate in their criticism of the excessive militarism and racial profiling that pervades policing in this country.”

The city has responded to national pressure in the past — ushering in reforms over the tear gassing incident shortly after a New York Times report on the protests last summer — but Hetznecker hopes the new international pressure will force more policy change. Without offering many specifics, Kenney’s office said “significant reform efforts are underway.”

UN official condemned undercover police at 2016 protest

The UN confirmed to Grid Philly last week that it focused on the city after hearing allegations about the events of last summer. In December, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Stern Community Lawyering Clinic at Drexel submitted a 90-page complaint to the international body.

The Kenney administration said it was unaware of any other times the UN had specifically censured the PPD, but there was at least one other mention in recent years.

Maina Kiai, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, cited Philadelphia during a 2016 visit to the U.S. In a report, Kiai wrote about observing a Black Lives Matter protest in Philly where protesters became agitated after discovering undercover police filming the demonstration.

Both undercover officers and police film crews are commonplace at protests in Philly and other big cities. But it came as a shock to Kiai, a Kenyan attorney and human rights activist.

“The decision to place an undercover officer with a camera in the middle of a protest against police violence is unfathomable,” Kiai wrote. “While police have a right to record protests, that right must not be used to intimidate, or provoke protesters. In fact the only time filming should be done at a protest by the police is to record an actual crime in progress.”

In its December complaint to the UN, the ACLU made a lengthy case that Philadelphia police tactics last summer violated international law.

The UN experts who authored the report broadly agreed. Going further, they criticized the legal policy frameworks in the U.S. that allow officers to apply even lethal force whenever they deem it “reasonable.”

“The various laws and policies governing police use of force must comply with the U.S. international obligations,” the experts wrote, “and this means they must be based on the principles of precaution, necessity and proportionality.”

52nd Street tear gas lawsuit settles for $87k

Six lawsuits emerged from the protest response last summer — mostly revolving around excessive force allegations and tear gassing on the 52nd Street and the Vine Street Expressway.

Two of those cases reached settlement in recent months.

One of them was brought by 52nd Street resident Nina Bryant and her relatives, who were tear gassed by police while standing outside of their house. None of the family members were involved in the protest activity a few blocks from their home, according to the complaint.

That case was resolved for $87,500 — including $7,500 for each plaintiff and $12,500 in attorneys fees, according to settlement records.

The city settled another excessive force lawsuit with Matthew McMurrough, 26, who claimed police “ambushed” him as he was trying to leave a May 31 peaceful protest on 52nd Street. According to the complaint, officers allegedly shot McMurrough three times with rubber bullets from close range, piercing his skin. One of the bullets penetrated his right leg “to the bone.” The final settlement figure has not yet been determined.

The four other lawsuits involve hundreds of other litigants who say they were wrongly tear-gassed on the Vine Street Expressway, among other claims. Those cases remain ongoing in federal court.