Lawsuit: Detroit cops attacked college students for taking video of forceful arrest

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Like any good journalism student, Makkel Richards pulled out his cell phone and began recording Detroit Police forcefully arresting a man with a bloody face at Grand Circus Park during last year’s fireworks display.

But police weren’t pleased, and according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Thursday, Sgt. Gadwell pushed the 22-year-old student to the ground and then punched him in the face. Police then attacked his friend, a 20-year-old political science major, Adam Malinowski, and destroyed his camera, according to the suit filed by one of their attorneys, Shaun Godwin.

Mekkel Richards with a bruise on his neck and face.
Mekkel Richards with a bruise on his neck and face.

“Everyone has a First Amendment right to record police in public,” Godwin said. “Recording the activities of the police from a short distance is not a crime and does not interfere with an officer’s ability to carry out their duties.”

The students were able to retrieve only a small fraction of the film, which can be seen here. 

Courts have ruled that residents have the constitutional right to record police in public space, but that hasn’t stopped cops from breaking the law. In 2013, cops detained Detroit Free Press photographer Mandi Wright for filming police from a public street, and they managed to “lose” her memory card and leave her alone with a suspect she had been filming from a public street. Detroit police also were accused of roughing up two people for taking picture of a film set.

Assistant Police Chief Steve Dolnut, who witnessed the incident at the fireworks, called the students “fucking idiots” and said “they need to be taught a lesson,” according to the lawsuit.

A phone allegedly destroyed by cops.
A phone allegedly destroyed by cops.

Police arrested the students, lodged them in jail and charged them with “inference of a public employee.”

Godwin said the police department’s actions are unconscionable.

“The fact that Detroit police officers continue to arrest and criminally charge people for exercising their First Amendment right to record them is troubling and indicates that the police department continues to fail to train and discipline its officers,” Godwin said.

Incidents like this are why the ACLU created a cell phone app that allows users to send live video feed to attorneys in case police erase the content.

“These young people should be praised for their heroism, humanity and courage in the face of assault,” said Ron Scott of the Coalition Against Police Brutality. “It is important that we not allow heinous acts of police violence to go undocumented. Thank God for video.”

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.