In the first such verdict since mass protests swept Los Angeles in 2020, a federal jury on Thursday awarded $375,000 to a protester who was shot and seriously wounded in the face by a hard foam police projectile.
The verdict followed the jury’s conclusion that Los Angeles Police Officer Peter Bueno violated the civil rights of protester Deon Jones by shooting him with the “less lethal” weapon.
Jones, dressed in a navy blue suit, listened with bowed head as a judge read out the jury’s decision in a Santa Ana courthouse. Afterward, he said it was “a good day.”
“This victory is not only mine. It’s for all the people who have historically come out and protested,” Jones said. “It sends a message that … law enforcement can’t brutalize people.”
Well, in a light gray suit, he stared straight ahead as the verdict was read. His attorney, Janine Jeffery, declined to comment later.
LAPD officers have rarely been held accountable for the force used during mass protests against police brutality after the killing of George Floyd, despite hundreds of excessive force complaints filed with the department.
The jury delivered its decision after a week of testimony in which Jones and Bueno offered starkly different descriptions of the chaotic scene where the shooting occurred, which was only partially captured on video.
Jones, who suffered multiple facial fractures, accused Bueno of indiscriminately shooting into the crowd in violation of department policy and ignoring the clear danger he posed to peaceful protesters like himself.
Jones’ attorney, Orin Snyder, said he hoped the case would deter the use of similar force by LAPD officers in the future.
Well, assigned to work as a “cover” officer that day, he described shooting only specific people in the crowd who posed a threat to him and other officers. He denied shooting Jones, and Jeffery questioned whether Jones’ injuries were caused by a police projectile.
The eight-member jury deliberated for about four hours on Wednesday afternoon. They met again Thursday morning and deliberated for less than an hour, returning with their verdict in Jones’ favor shortly after 9 a.m.
The jury found that Bueno had violated Jones’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement.
He rejected other claims that Bueno had discriminated against Jones and that he had violated Jones’ First Amendment rights.
The jury first awarded Jones $250,000 to compensate for his pain, suffering, and associated financial losses since the shooting. He then heard additional arguments as to whether he should award Jones additional “punitive” damages, as punishment for Bueno.
Jeffery asked the jury to be fair to Bueno, a 27-year veteran of the department who said he “will continue to protect and serve” as a member of the LAPD.
Snyder said Bueno violated the trust placed in police officers and should be held accountable.
“When things get chaotic on the streets of Los Angeles,” he said, “that’s when we need the police to be at their best.”
After further deliberation, the jury awarded Jones another $125,000.
How the damages will be paid remained unclear on Thursday.
The city may choose to indemnify Bueno and cover his costs, but Jeffery said there was “no guarantee” of that given the composition of the Los Angeles City Council, which includes fierce critics of the LAPD and its response to the protests.
The trial, which focused on Jones’s allegations against Bueno, was the first phase of a larger lawsuit Jones filed. Future proceedings will consider Jones’ allegations that the LAPD and the city of Los Angeles were negligent in supervising officers during the protests and could result in taxpayers paying more damages.
Jones’ victory in court stands out for several reasons.
Few individual officers have been disciplined by the LAPD for actions taken during the 2020 protests, despite hundreds of allegations of excessive force and other misconduct, according to LAPD data reviewed by The Times.
Half a dozen protesters agreed to end their own litigation against the city in exchange for cash settlements that did not include any acknowledgment of wrongdoing by officials or the city.
Jones had been offered a settlement from the city, which was for less than what he was awarded Thursday, but he turned it down.
He told his lawyers that he wanted to hold Bueno accountable for shooting him, and the city and Los Angeles Police Department for allowing excessive use of force against protesters. He wanted them to be found wrong and not silenced using taxpayer dollars.
Jones, 31, who is black and works in entertainment and brand consulting, was injured during a mass demonstration on May 30, 2020 in the Fairfax district. Activists had gathered to denounce the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the killings of other black Americans in police custody.
The Times published an article describing claims by him and other protesters that police beat them with batons and shot them with projectiles without justification weeks after the protest, prompting an internal investigation by the LAPD that resulted in Bueno not discipline
Jones filed his lawsuit in December 2020.
In the span of two days on the witness stand, Jones recounted the events of that day, telling the jury that he felt a moral duty to join others protesting injustice at Pan Pacific Park.
When other protesters set a police car on fire several blocks away, he and a friend worried officers would respond forcefully and moved into the parking lot of a nearby Trader Joe’s.
Jones was live streaming the scene on his phone when he noticed an officer, whom he later identified as Bueno, pointing a gun in his direction. Jones said he turned his face to avoid being hit head-on, but the golf ball-sized projectile struck him square on the cheek.
Jones testified that he lost job opportunities due to his facial injuries, including a television contract with BET. The incident left him in severe emotional distress, he said.
“The guilt you have with the people who, you know, decide to help you that day. The pain you feel for what happened to you. The flashbacks you have from what happened to you,” Jones told the jury. “The dreams you have because of what happened to you. If I’m honest, it just hurts. It hurts. It hurts. It’s something, I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The subject of Black Lives Matter and the global movement against racial injustice that followed Floyd’s death only came up occasionally during the trial.
Both Jeffery and Bueno painted a picture for the jury of an out-of-control mob hurling rocks and bottles at officers. Jeffery showed videos and still images of a burning squad car and others with broken windows and covered in anti-police graffiti.
“It was chaos out there. In other words, there were people throwing stones, bottles,” Bueno testified. “They were violent. The people who approached us were hostile.”
Bueno admitted that firing a 40-millimeter hard foam round at a person’s head could cause serious injury and that the weapon was not designed to be fired into a crowd.
In succinct responses, Bueno said he was shooting at a “specific target,” an unidentified person who emerged from the crowd and hurled a bottle of water that landed at Bueno’s feet.
Bueno recounted how, after working more than 20 hours the previous day, he and his platoon were ordered to respond to the area of South Fairfax Avenue and West 3rd Street.
He blamed a faulty on/off switch for the fact that his body-worn camera was off for four and a half hours of the six hours he was on duty that day.
Bueno remains assigned to the LAPD’s Metropolitan Division, an elite unit that, among other duties, handles crowd control.
Jones’s friend, Niara Hill, broke down in tears on the stand as she recounted the moments before and after Jones was shot.
After spending most of the day together at the protest, Hill said, the two parted ways briefly. She was about 10 feet away when a protester within “contact distance” of Jones threw a water bottle in the direction of an officer holding a green 40-millimeter launcher, she said.
Moments later, that officer shot Jones, he said.
Jeffery later asked Hill if her social media posts about the case were for publicity.
Hill said no.
“I wanted people to know that there were police officers shooting people with rubber bullets in the face,” he said.
In closing remarks, Snyder said Jones and Hill thought they were doing the right thing by heading to the parking lot after clashes between some protesters and police turned violent on 3rd Street.
“They did the right thing and stood back from the tumult on the street. They did what every parent would want them to do. They looked for security,” Snyder said. “And this is an irony in this case: this is where the police wanted people to go.”
The only witness for the defense, LAPD Tactical Flight Officer Craig Zapperman, testified that from his point of view aboard a department helicopter, the situation on the ground had gotten out of hand. He estimated that at one point, the crowd around Bueno and Jones had grown to 2,000 or 3,000 people, some of whom invaded and vandalized an MTA bus.
“The vast majority of the crowd that stayed behind was violent,” he testified.
Jeffery took advantage of what he considered discrepancies in Jones’s description of the officer who fired the 40-millimeter round and the extent of his injuries. He showed jurors messages from Jones to his friends in the days and weeks after the incident, telling them that he was physically fine.
Jones testified that a doctor never diagnosed him with a traumatic brain injury, saying it was because he did not have health insurance at the time.
Jeffery also argued that there was insufficient evidence to prove that his client shot Jones, or that Jones was even shot, suggesting that he may have been injured in other ways during the protest.
Snyder accused Bueno and Jeffery of trying to distract the jury by tarnishing Jones’ name without even explaining why Bueno had fired his gun as he did that day: “just attacking, attacking, attacking these young men who came here to share their truth.” “.
After the award was announced, Snyder said he hoped the jury’s decision would send a message to LAPD commanders and other officers about the constitutional limits on the force they can use against peaceful protesters.
“This should never happen again,” he said. “And I hope this case clears that up for everyone.”
Both he and Jones said they now had their sights set on the second part of the case and holding the city and the Los Angeles Police Department accountable as well.