Lawsuits claim false arrests, excessive force by law enforcement during Cleveland’s May riots: I-Team


Editor’s Note: The video above is about the anniversary of George Floyd’s death.

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WJW) – Federal lawsuits were filed Friday by more than a dozen people, alleging Cleveland police and Cuyahoga County sheriff’s deputies used excessive force and unlawfully arrested them during last year’s May 30 protest in downtown Cleveland.

The two lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court by Atty. Sarah Gelsomino, who is with the Friedman, Gilbert and Gerhardstein law firm in Cleveland.

One lawsuit was filed on behalf of 13 plaintiffs that were at the protest, which was held in response to the murder of George Floyd who died in police custody in Minneapolis.

The suit names dozens of Cleveland police officers and Cuyahoga County sheriff deputies as defendants.

The I-Team reached out to city and county officials to discuss the lawsuits.

The county sent this statement to the I-Team:

Once a lawsuit is filed, and we receive service, it is handled by the prosecutor’s civil division.

Cuyahoga county

In the first suit, several of the plaintiffs stated they suffered numerous injuries at the hand of law enforcement including Shainna Bernard.

“Shainna Bernard is a 30-year-old Black woman who was protesting in downtown Cleveland on May 30, 2020. At all times relevant to this complaint, Shainna was participating in First Amendment-protected activity.  Shainna Bernard did not pose a threat to any person, law enforcement or otherwise, at any time while she was peacefully protesting. While holding a protest sign and kneeling in the front area of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, Shainna was pepper-sprayed from behind by a Defendant John Doe Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s deputy.”

The suit also states Bernard was put in plastic zip handcuffs that were so tight it left her with nerve damage.

Other plaintiffs say they were detained, jailed, and let go days later.

The second suit was filed by Valeri Belokon and Brooke Riffle,  who stated they were arrested downtown the day after the protest. 

“On May 31, 2020, Valeri Belokon and Brooke Riffle traveled to downtown Cleveland in attempts to help clean any refuse left behind by the crowds of protesters and law enforcement the day before, or assist any protesters needing first aid,” the suit states.  “They were arrested for failure to comply with the City of Cleveland’s curfew and detained for three days. All criminal charges against Plaintiffs were later dropped.”

The suit alleges the two were falsely arrested, illegally searched and held in jail for several days. 

“The curfew cases were particularly disturbing,” Atty. Terry Gilbert, told the I-Team.  “Rather than giving notice to our clients to leave the area, they arrested, handcuffed, and put them in jail. It turned out that the curfew gave absolutely no authority to the police to arrest people. The accountability falls on police leadership who allowed these false arrests to occur.”

Shortly after that weekend, Mayor Frank Jackson and Police Chief Calvin Williams said they believed police did a good job.

In December, following an internal review of the protests, Cleveland city leaders admitted they could have done more to prevent the violent chaos.

Chief Williams has also said the City is reviewing more than a dozen complaints filed by citizens against officers for what happened in the streets on the day of the riots.

The city does not comment on pending litigation, a representative told FOX 8.

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