BATON ROUGE, La. — A federal judge approved a class-action settlement Friday that awards up to $1,000 in cash to dozens of protesters who claim police violated their civil rights and used excessive force in arresting them after a deadly police shooting.
The deal resolves one of several lawsuits against Louisiana law enforcement agencies after a white Baton Rouge police officer shot and killed Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, in July 2016. The shooting was one of several that had fueled a national debate about race and policing.
Black Lives Matter movement leader DeRay Mckesson is among 69 arrested protesters eligible for payments ranging from $500 to $1,000 now that U.S. District Judge John W. deGravelles has given his final approval. The judge, who said the total value of the settlement is about $136,000, ruled from the bench after a hearing that Mckesson and another plaintiff attended.
Mckesson, a 32-year-old Baltimore resident, said the settlement demonstrates courts can be effective in holding officers and city governments “accountable” for police misconduct.
“This can be a blueprint for activists and organizers and lawyers across the county to think about what remedies look like at the court level. And it’s not just money,” he said after the hearing.
The judge commended attorneys for reaching a “fair, adequate and reasonable” settlement that avoids costly, time-consuming litigation.
“It obviously is a matter that touches on a lot of sensitive issues and had the potential for being very contentious and destructive,” deGravelles said.
Eleven other arrested protesters who were eligible for payments instead opted out of the settlement. Some are seeking higher compensation for court claims they’re pursuing separately in federal court.
Police arrested nearly 200 people at protests in Baton Rouge after a white police officer fatally shot Sterling during a struggle outside a convenience store.
The Justice Department investigated the shooting and announced earlier this month that it won’t file criminal charges against the two officers who struggled with Sterling. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office is investigating whether any state charges are warranted.
The settlement’s class is limited to protesters who were arrested only on charges of obstructing a highway. The local district attorney announced last summer that roughly 100 arrested protesters wouldn’t be prosecuted on that charge.
Besides cash payments, the deal also calls for expunging criminal records free of charge. Plaintiffs’ attorney Roy Rodney Jr. said that is the most important component of the deal because it ensures a criminal record won’t follow the arrested protesters, many of whom are young adults.
Kira Marrero, a 24-year-old plaintiff from New Orleans, said the settlement’s approval was a “clear victory” but left her with mixed emotions.
“I’m definitely glad that we’re getting some justice, though at the same time it’s a really painful memory to dig up,” she said. “I’m still pretty heartbroken, I guess, by everything that happened.”
Marrero said she was standing in a grassy area, not a road, and never heard an order to disperse before she was arrested and spent “a long night” in jail. She said she saw an officer point a rifle at her face and another officer in riot gear pointing and laughing at protesters.
“I think everyone who knew me trusted that I wasn’t out there breaking the law and that clearly something was wrong,” she said.
Attorneys’ fees and costs will be negotiated separately and won’t come out of the cash payments to protesters.
A federal magistrate gave preliminary approval to the settlement in May. Nobody formally objected to the deal, but some publicly criticized it. The head of the union that represents Baton Rouge police officers has called the agreement a “slap in the face” and a “dangerous precedent” that could lead to even larger crowds at future protests.
Mckesson and two other arrested protesters were named as plaintiffs in the suit against the city of Baton Rouge and officials from the city’s police department, the local sheriff’s office and the Louisiana State Police. The lawsuit, filed last August and now resolved, claimed police advanced against peaceful protesters while wearing military gear and gas masks and brandishing assault weapons alongside armored vehicles.