LINCOLN, Neb. — Law enforcement agencies acted with deliberate indifference in their response to days of protest last year, culminating in a severe injury to a Lincoln woman, a federal lawsuit alleged Tuesday.
Elise Poole, 19, took part in demonstrations for racial justice in Lincoln May 30-31 with thousands of others, part of a nationwide reaction to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Nebraska and Omaha attorney Daniel Gutman states.
During those protests, on May 31, just after 10 p.m. -- roughly two hours after a curfew set by Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird -- Poole was kneeling with friends on the sidewalk near 12th and H streets as protesters were confronted by officers in riot gear from the Lincoln Police Department and Lancaster County Sheriff's Office, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges Poole was attempting to flee tear gas when she was struck in the face by a projectile fired by an unknown officer, who was acting to disperse the crowd through the use of rubber bullets.
"Poole, who was on the sidewalk at the time, immediately dropped to the ground," the lawsuit states, adding she tasted blood. "As she reached for her face to determine the extent of her injuries, she felt her nose hanging near her mouth."
Helped by her friends to the hospital, Poole applied pressure to keep her "partially detached nose" attached to her face. Doctors later determined the bone, cartilage and internal valve of her nose were destroyed by the impact of the projectile.
The lawsuit alleges there was "no reasonable basis" for firing at Poole or others who were gathered on the sidewalk, and accuses officers who did so of negligence.
"In particular, defendant officers did not safely deploy their weaponry in a manner that minimized and/or avoided projectiles from striking peaceful demonstrators," the suit reads.
Poole's attorneys said Jeff Bliemeister, who was then LPD chief, and Sheriff Terry Wagner approved the use of various "less lethal" weapons, including rubber bullets, in advance of the May 31 demonstrations in downtown Lincoln.
As they attempted to disperse the largely peaceful protesters, the lawsuit states, "the actions and inactions" of officers resulted in severe injuries.
Reports from sheriff's deputies indicated they were supplied with various "less lethal" weaponry, including bean bag guns and pepper spray, which they used on protesters.
The lawsuit notes Wagner later acknowledged sheriff's deputies did not have the equipment or proper training to control the crowd.
"The unconstitutional consequences of equipping officers with supposed 'crowd control' weaponry they do not know how to use is patently obvious," the lawsuit states.
An internal review by Lincoln Police found nearly 300 instances where officers used force during the protests in late May and early June, but the department determined nearly all were justified.
Gaylor Baird, in a statement, said the city did not have a comment on pending litigation.
The mayor added that since last summer's protests, the city has undertaken several policy reviews, including implementing diversity and inclusion training, revising police use-of-force policies and strengthening accountability measures like its Citizen Police Advisory Board.
Wagner also said he found no instances of excessive force by deputies.
But the lawsuit alleges the actions of law enforcement deprived Poole of her First Amendment right to assemble, protest and demonstrate peaceably.
Poole is seeking a jury trial for special damages for the cost of her medical care, compensation for violations of her constitutional rights, punitive damages, and other fees.