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City offers $87K settlement to West Philly family teargassed by police during last year’s civil unrest

The deal is the first settlement to emerge from the more than 300 legal claims filed over the police response to racial injustice protests in Philadelphia last spring.

Philadelphia Police SWAT officers walk through clouds of tear gas that they fired from an armored truck in an apparent effort to clear a crowd of people near 52nd and Chestnut Streets on May 31, 2020.
Philadelphia Police SWAT officers walk through clouds of tear gas that they fired from an armored truck in an apparent effort to clear a crowd of people near 52nd and Chestnut Streets on May 31, 2020.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

As Nina Bryant, her sister, and their families sat on the front porch of her West Philadelphia home enjoying the weather on a late afternoon last May, trouble was erupting just two blocks away.

The city was roiling with tension in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis just days before and a crowd of demonstrators had gathered nearby at 52nd and Market Streets to protest policing tactics in their own community.

Bryant and her family had decided to stay out of the tumult — until the tumult came to her door.

She, her sister, Sherrie, and their four children were among the dozens of neighborhood residents who sat out the protests May 31 only to find themselves caught in the police response as officers fired tear gas along residential blocks in an attempt to disperse the crowds. The women rushed their children inside, dousing their eyes with milk to stop the burning.

To date, their lawyer wrote in a civil rights lawsuit filed in September, city officials have never directly offered an explanation or an apology. But now, under the terms of a recent agreement, Bryant and the nine other members of her family who sued over what happened to them that day will receive compensation.

In the first legal settlement to emerge from the nearly 300 claims filed in response to police tactics during last spring’s unrest, the city agreed last month to pay the Bryants and four others who were on the family’s porch that day $75,000.

» READ MORE: 'I couldn't breathe:' Inside the West Philly neighborhood tear-gassed by police

The Bryants and their lawyer Brian J. Zeiger — who will receive an additional $12,500 under the agreement — declined to discuss the deal, which was first reported by the news website BillyPenn. But its resolution mere months after the filing of their suit offers a glimpse at the swiftness with which city officials are seeking to resolve the hundreds of still-outstanding claims.

Shortly after the Bryant case settled, the city reached an agreement with another of Zeiger’s clients.

That case involved Matthew McMurrough, 27, who said in his suit that police pelted him with rubber bullets, causing injuries that required hospitalization, even after he told them he was just trying to leave the 52nd Street area to head to his home in Roxborough. The terms of that deal, which would pay McMurrough and his lawyer $20,000, have not yet been finalized.

“With these settlements, the city and plaintiffs were able to reach a resolution that was reasonable for all parties,” city spokesperson Mike Dunn said in a statement Wednesday.

The vast majority of the remaining claims center on two main flash points during the protests — the June 1 teargassing of demonstrators on I-676 and the indiscriminate use of rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas on protesters and neighborhood residents alike during efforts to quell unrest along 52nd Street the day before. Both incidents have drawn widespread criticism from independent monitors, activists, community members, and even the United Nations.

And most of the nearly 300 demonstrators, activists, and community residents who filed suit in the months afterward did so as plaintiffs in four lawsuits led by a team of civil rights lawyers, including attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Lawyers in those cases said Tuesday that settlement negotiations with the city have been underway for months. But unlike the Bryants’ case, which was resolved solely with a financial payout, the plaintiffs in their cases are also pushing for legally binding commitments for police reform in any deal to which they might agree.

“We’re hopeful that the requests on behalf of the plaintiffs will establish real inroads in changing the culture of the Philly Police Department,” said Paul Hetznecker, one of the attorneys leading the effort.

He declined to discuss the current state of the negotiations or the specific reforms under discussion so as not to impede the settlement talks. A spokesperson for the city, meanwhile, did not return requests for comment on the settled cases or the ongoing negotiations in those still to be resolved.

But other plaintiffs lawyers in the cases pointed to recommendations recently floated in independent investigations and by City Council as a model for the types of measures being debated.

In December, an independent review, commissioned by Mayor Jim Kenney, offered 77 reform recommendations, including enhanced training, better equipment such as body-worn cameras, and renewed efforts to build community trust after finding the department was “simply not prepared” for the size of the demonstrations — a lapse that led to “inordinate use of gas and other munitions” by police and “at times excessive force against protesters.”

Subsequent reports by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and a panel of U.N. human rights experts last month were more critical and called for severe limitations on the use of nonlethal weapons such as tear gas and pepper spray as tools for quelling unrest.

» READ MORE: Philly police commissioner sought to use tear gas against protesters as Kenney hesitated, investigation says

Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw have apologized for certain aspects of the city’s response — including using tear gas on the I-676 demonstrators — and have pledged to consider several reform proposals

Hetznecker said Tuesday he hopes the still-outstanding lawsuits can cement those reforms — whether through a settlement or, if necessary, further litigation.

“All of us would like to see a shift from the warrior cop to a more community-based model of policing,” he said. “The driving force and motivation for our clients is to establish real, sustained reform within the Philadelphia Police Department.”