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Woman shot in face during protests settles federal lawsuit against city

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The city will pay $497,500 to a Lincoln woman injured by a rubber bullet during racial justice protests in May 2020 as part of a settlement of the federal lawsuit she filed against it.

Elise Poole, now 20, participated in demonstrations south of downtown Lincoln on May 30-31, 2020, with thousands of others as part of a nationwide reaction to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

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 filed in February 2021.

The lawsuit alleges Poole was attempting to flee tear gas fired by police 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.

Lawsuit against Sarpy County over pepper ball injury during 2020 protest will proceed on two of four claims
Lincoln woman's federal lawsuit over injuries during protest against local law enforcement agencies can move forward

After she was hurt, friends helped Poole to a hospital, while she applied pressure to keep her "partially detached nose" attached to her face until she could get medical aid.

Doctors later determined the bone, cartilage and internal valve of her nose were destroyed by the impact of the projectile. They performed emergency reconstructive surgery to reattach her nose.

Poole will need further surgeries in order to be able to regain normal breathing functionality, her attorneys said in a news release.

"If my case protects just one other person from going through what I experienced, it was worth it," Poole said in a statement. "Our protest was about protecting Black lives and calling out police violence.

"Those messages are just as important today and I hope my case plays a small role in making our city safer for everyone," she added.

Daniel Gutman, a contract attorney litigating the case on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska, said the lawsuit was successful in holding law enforcement accountable and ensuring Poole is fully compensated for the harm she suffered.

"We are pleased that her case has ended in a fair agreement," Gutman said in a statement. "Elise was severely injured while exercising her First Amendment right to free speech and assembly. Law enforcement must understand, and this lawsuit shows, that our constitutional rights must be respected."

The lawsuit named the city, Lancaster County, Jeff Bliemeister, who was police chief at the time, Sheriff Terry Wagner and unknown officers working that night.

The city does not admit liability and makes no admissions of wrongdoing as part of the settlement, which cannot be used as admission or evidence of illegal conduct in any other case or dispute. Each party will pay its own attorney’s fees, and Poole will pay her medical bills.

“We do not know what caused Ms. Poole’s injury,” City Attorney Yohance Christie said. “Gasoline, fireworks and other dangerous objects were thrown at our Lincoln police officers repeatedly. Just like we do not know who threw these dangerous objects at our Lincoln police officers, we do not know who or what caused Ms. Poole’s injury.”

More than two dozen officers were injured during the May 29-June 1 protests, police said.

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Overall, Christie said, police did a good job managing the “unprecedented incident" in the city.

“We do not know what truly happened,” he said, but there are many factors to consider when settling a case such as this.

“In an effort to move our community forward, in an effort to help us heal as a community, and in an effort to not force our officers and our community to relive these unfortunate events, we have reached an amicable settlement in this matter,” he said.

The Journal Star informally asked Lincoln Police to view footage captured on body cameras by several officers working the nights of the protests, but was denied.

"As of today we have not received any additional guidance from city law regarding the release of (body worn cameras)," Police Capt. Todd Kocian said. "At this time I cannot provide you with a final decision or possible timeline, however, it's not likely to be released in the near future."

Following the denial, the Journal Star filed a public-records request with the department for the footage.

The suit alleged law enforcement agencies acted with deliberate indifference in their response to days of protest and that there was "no reasonable basis" for firing at Poole or others who were gathered on the sidewalk.

Officers who did so, the lawsuit alleged, were negligent, and the actions of law enforcement deprived Poole of her First Amendment right to assemble, protest and demonstrate peaceably.

"We have alleged throughout this lawsuit that law enforcement responded to peaceful demonstrations with dangerous weapons," Gutman said. "As a result of this response, Elise suffered traumatic and life-changing injuries. We stand by the allegations in the complaint and are happy that Elise is able to move forward and close this chapter of her life."

Poole's attorneys said Bliemeister and 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.

An internal review by Lincoln Police found nearly 300 instances where officers used force during the protests in late May and early June of 2020, but the department determined nearly all were justified.

Gaylor Baird has noted that since the protests, the city has undertaken several policy reviews, including implementing diversity and inclusion training, revising police use-of-force policies and strengthening accountability measures such as its Citizen Police Advisory Board.

Wagner also said he found no instances of excessive force by deputies.

Poole’s case was one of dozens of lawsuits filed nationwide in the aftermath of the 2020 demonstrations alleging law enforcement used excessive force in dispersing crowds that had gathered to protest the murder of Floyd.

The ACLU of Nebraska previously reached a settlement with the City of Omaha challenging Omaha police’s use of pepper balls and mass arrests during protests between May-July 2020.

As part of the settlement, Omaha city officials agreed to drop charges against more than 100 protesters who were held for hours in crowded jail cells during a COVID-19 outbreak.

Omaha police also agreed to conduct further training on the use of chemical agents such as pepper spray and provide annual reports detailing compliance with the agreement.

A Council Bluffs, Iowa, man sued Sarpy County, Sheriff Jeff Davis, and four deputies in August 2021 for shooting him in the eye with a pepper ball at a protest in Omaha on May 29, 2020.

According to the lawsuit, Adam Keup was at the protest with his partner, who was taking photos when they were approached by deputies in riot gear.

One of the deputies shot Keup in the eye and shoulder, then pulled him behind police lines and poured water into his eye, which Keup said activated the chemical agent and caused further damage to his vision.

At about the same time the City of Lincoln reached an agreement with Poole earlier this month, a federal jury in Denver awarded $14 million to protesters struck by pepper balls and lead-filled bags during protests there.

The 12 protesters who sued argued the projectiles were fired indiscriminately, including intentionally at some individuals who were filming police’s actions responding to the protests.

Protesters describe being shot, gassed during Black Lives Matter rallies in Lincoln