Police respond to protests in Denver on May 31, 2020, in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota. (Joe Mahoney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By Colleen Slevin, The Associated Press

The trial for a lawsuit accusing Denver police of using indiscriminate force two years ago against people protesting the killing of George Floyd started Monday in federal court with a lawyer describing officers shooting pepper balls at people filming the protests or standing outside their homes.

Timothy Macdonald, one of the lawyers representing 12 people suing Denver, said police targeted peaceful protesters with less-lethal devices like pepper spray, pepper balls, and foam bullets because they did not like their message critical of the police.

“To the protest of police violence they responded with brutality,” he said during opening statements in a trial that is believed to be the first for a lawsuit challenging the tactics of police during the protests that erupted across the United States nearly two years ago.

However, a lawyer representing Denver, Lindsay Jordan, stressed that police faced “unprecedented violence and destruction” due to agitators in the crowds and said that some of the protesters involved in the lawsuit supported the illegal actions of others.

The lawsuit is one of about dozen that have been filed on behalf of over 60 people injured or arrested in Denver’s protests, including several from people who were shot in the eye with less-lethal ammunition amid the demonstrations in the city over several days starting May 28, 2020, according to The Denver Post.

The lawsuit in the trial that began Monday seeks unspecified financial damages and asks for a declaration that Denver officials that police violated protesters’ constitutional rights, including their First Amendment right to protest. It also seeks an order for the city to change how officers deals with protesters.

In his opening remarks, Macdonald described a protesting dental student who was pepper sprayed in the face without warning while he said he was attempting to de-escalate tensions. He cited the case of a lawyer who was was filming police and protesters was shot in the leg with a pepper ball as she crossed the street near the state Capitol.

He also said police fired pepper balls at two women standing outside their home near the protest. That incident happened within an hour of the women and their neighbors cursing at police driving down the street and telling them to get out of their neighborhood.

Jordan said the officer who shot the pepper balls at the lawyer crossing the street, Elisabeth Epps, believed she was blocking traffic and was trying to get her out of the street.

She urged jurors to consider the totality of the circumstances that police were facing as they examine the evidence in the trial, which includes a voluminous amount of video from police body cameras and surveillance video.

Aggressive responses from police to people protesting police brutality nationally have led to financial settlements, the departures of police chiefs and criminal charges.

In Austin, Texas, officials have agreed to pay over $13 million to people injured in protests in May 2020 and 19 officers have been indicted for their actions against protesters. Last month, two police officers in Dallas accused of injuring protesters after firing less lethal munitions were charged.

However, in 2021, a federal judge dismissed most of the claims filed by activists and civil liberties groups over the forcible removal of protesters by police before then-President Donald Trump walked to a church near the White House for a photo op.

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