Two Iowa police officers are taking the unusual move of suing six people who participated in a 2020 protest in Des Moines after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, accusing them of assault.
All six people were arrested during the July 1, 2020, protest, and five already pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of assault on a police officer and/or interference with official acts. One of them, Indira Sheumaker, was later elected to the Des Moines City Council.
The lawsuit, first reported by Axios Des Moines, was filed by Peter Wilson and Jeffrey George as individuals and not as representatives of the Des Moines Police Department. They are seeking an unspecified amount for actual and punitive damages.
It will likely be met with skepticism by the court, said Robert Bloom, a professor at Boston College Law School, who noted that the claims of assault and battery appear to be applying criminal complaints to a civil action.
Experts also note that Iowa is among several states that have adopted what’s known as the “fireman’s rule,” which holds that firefighting and policing are inherently dangerous jobs and generally bars emergency responders from suing or collecting damages for injuries that occur in the course of their duties. The rule typically includes some exceptions — such as gross negligence of a property owner or if injury was caused by willful, wanton or intentional action.
The protest was among demonstrations against racism and police brutality that erupted worldwide following Floyd's killing. It began as a rally at the Iowa State Capitol to push for the restored voting rights to felons and turned violent as police led away arrested protesters.
Des Moines protesters have said police escalated tensions and were heavy-handed in their handling of arrests.
The suit describes protesters’ actions as “nothing short of domestic terrorism.”
No charges related to the protest were found against one of the lawsuit defendants in online court records. Only one person was sentenced to jail time — four days — while the others received probation, fines or both.
One person named in the suit, Brad Penna of Des Moines, said he thinks it's intended to “intimidate, function as a scare tactic, and to retaliate” against protesters who fought back against what they saw as unjust police aggression.
Penna was originally charged by police with assault on an officer, but that was dropped when he pleaded guilty to interference of officials acts and paid a $250 fine. Penna was among five protesters who later successfully sued the state after the Iowa State Patrol banned them from State Capitol grounds.
The officers' lawsuit accuses Penna of pulling on Wilson’s hands and arms to prevent an arrest, causing scrapes and bruises to the officer — an accusation Penna denies.
“I did not touch Pete Wilson, or any officer, and the video footage and evidence shows that,” Penna said Thursday in an email to The Associated Press. “I urged and yelled at Pete Wilson to get off a young Black woman’s head. That was it. Someone may have scratched him, but it wasn’t me. I did not hurt Pete Wilson, not to mention the comparison to protesters literally being thrown to the ground, pepper sprayed, and the like.”
Des Moines attorney Mark Hedberg, who represents Wilson and George, did not return repeated phone messages left by the AP seeking comment.
Other defendants named in the lawsuit either could not be reached for comment or did not return messages seeking comment. That includes Sheumaker, who pleaded guilty in 2021 to a reduced misdemeanor count of assault on a police officer and was sentenced to two years’ probation.
Later that year, Sheumaker was elected to the City Council on a platform that focused, in part, on police reform.
Bloom, the Boston College Law School professor, wondered if the officers' lawsuit wasn't more about airing grievances over the Des Moines Black Lives Matter organization, which is mentioned throughout the complaint, though it is not named as a defendant.
Bloom said he doesn’t expect to see more such lawsuits by police seeking damages from people they arrest.
“The police already have a remedy in this case, and the remedy is to charge criminally,” Bloom said.