Reno settles $250K police protest suit with ex-ACLU observer
RENO, Nev. (AP) — The Reno City Council approved a $250,000 settlement Wednesday with a former American Civil Liberties Union official who was shot by police with rubber bullets while serving as a legal observer at a 2020 civil rights protest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.
Rebecca Gasca, who was a deputy policy director for the ACLU of Nevada, said in a federal lawsuit she was wearing a blue vest reading “ACLU Legal Observer” when she was injured and her civil rights were violated by police on the edge of a downtown protest.
What began as a peaceful demonstration organized by Black Lives Matters and others on May 30, 2020, turned violent with isolated pockets of vandalism, including windows broken at city hall and a nearby business.
Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve declared a state of emergency, dozens of people were arrested and businesses reported thousands of dollars in damage.
Floyd, a Black man, died May 25, 2020, after a white police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes. The killing sparked international demonstrations and a reckoning on race.
Gasca said in the lawsuit filed in May 2022 in U.S. District Court in Reno that she was wearing a vest with white block letters and raised her arms above her head when she approached police from an empty parking lot blocks from the center of the activity before she was shot multiple times with nonlethal rubber bullets.
She arrived after a friend who was acting as a legal observer for Black Lives Matter called her about police shooting indiscriminately at protestors with tear gas and pepper balls, Gasca said.
“The trauma I experienced fails in comparison to the history of the suffering of so many others at the hands of institutionalized police brutality in our country,” Gasca said in a statement released by her lawyer’s office following Wednesday’s vote.
“We need peaceful change through police reform and we need it now,” she said.
The council voted 6-1 to approve the settlement, which named the city and its former police chief as defendants and is subject to final approval by a federal judge.
The settlement admits no liability by any party. In addition to the $250,000 payment, the agreement requires the city to engage in discussions with Gasca’s attorney about potential changes to polices, procedures and police training on using the same type of nonlethal round for crowd dispersion, according to the city’s legal staff.
“We owe a great deal of apology to this plaintiff,” Councilman Devon Reese said, adding that he knows Gasca.
Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus said she cast the lone dissent because she didn’t get to see the settlement agreement until minutes before the vote. She said it was an important matter needing more attention rather than quick approval based on the legal staff’s recommendation with limited details.
“This admission of an excessive force action — it’s the first one we’ve had and I think it’s sad,” Breckhus said. “I think this could have been a very good moment to explain what happened that day, what we’ve learned.”
Gasca’s lead lawyer, Maggie McLetchie, said they were pleased to resolve the case without further legal proceedings.
“Ms. Gasca and I look forward to working with the city of Reno to make meaningful changes to ensure this does not happen again,” she said. “We should not live in a world where you need to live in fear of the police because of the color of your skin, or because you legally observe or attend a protest drawing attention to police violence.”
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du granted a joint request from the parties to put the case on hold Jan. 27 after they informed her the sides had reached general settlement terms, subject to city council approval. Du set a Feb. 28 deadline for final settlement documents or another joint status report.
The lawsuit said Gasca went home from the scene in a state of shock after she suffered serious bruises to her thigh and arm from three pepper balls fired by police.
The third pepper ball came after she’d been sitting on the ground in the empty parking lot and “vocalized her plan to leave the scene — just before she” was hit, the lawsuit said. Prior to being struck the first time, she put her hands above her head to “indicate she was not a threat and had no intent to engage in criminal activity or interfere with police.”
”None of her conduct on the night of the protest suggested she posed any danger to the community,” the lawsuit said.
“Instead of addressing the few perpetrators of vandalism, police indiscriminately launched tear gas canisters into peaceful crowds and pelted peaceful protestors with rubber bullets,” it said.
This story corrects an earlier version that incorrectly reported the words on Rebecca Gasca’s vest. The correct words were “ACLU Legal Observer.”