Seven Hammond police officers and the City of Hammond have been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in New Orleans.
Timothy Watkins, 45, of Amite, is seeking monetary damages for the physical, financial and emotional harm he claims to have suffered because of excessive force allegedly used by police officer Anthony Fox.
He is also seeking to sue the six yet-to-be identified officers who were bystanders to the incident, as well as the city for alleged failure to properly train and discipline its officers. The case has been taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana’s Justice Lab.
City attorney Andre Coudrain said Monday he had not heard about the lawsuit and had no comment as yet. Likewise, Hammond City Council President Kip Andrews was unaware of the lawsuit as of late Monday afternoon until contacted by The Daily Star.
Andrews said it was also the media who informed him about a previous incident, a videoed arrest using a police dog. He said he wishes city officials could be notified sooner about lawsuits.
Watkins has requested a trial by jury.
According to the filed complaint, Watkins called 911 on April 30, 2020, about a dispute over a broken windshield. "Instead, the police arrested him on an unrelated shoplifting charge, handcuffed him, and severely injured him in the process," the complaint alleges.
During the encounter, Watkins reportedly pleaded with Fox to handcuff him from the front rather than the back to avoid exacerbating his severe chronic sciatica, but the officer did not and left Watkins twisted and bent over for 30 minutes.
Watkins' attorney, Priyanka Timblo of the Holwell Shuster & Goldberg legal firm in New York, said that unlike other use-of-force situations, this one was a calm incident. Her client went from having a peaceful dispute over a broken window and calling the police to himself being arrested on a minor shoplifting charge.
“He wasn’t trying to resist arrest. He wasn’t going anywhere. He was unarmed,” she said. “He politely asked to be handcuffed to the front, not the back because he had this chronic underlying condition he knew he would be severely injured, and there was no danger to anyone at the scene. There was no reason to use excessive force.”
While this lawsuit has been in process since fall, Watkins’ shoplifting charge for allegedly stealing two bottles of tequila valued at $77.98 from Albertsons was dropped in March due to lack of evidence, Timblo said. While he is still in pain, she said, he was heartened by the charge being dropped.
“To him, it really spoke to how wrong the situation was ... an innocent man that this was done to," she said. "He's still in physical pain, but he is very supportive of these claims and is looking forward to his day in court."
Timblo is working pro bono on the case and her law firm has partnered with ACLU on their Justice Lab initiative. She said she feels this is a worthy case because someone needs to call out this conduct, so there can be improvement.
“Under the prevailing Supreme Court standard, the police often justify using excessive force on the basis that there was a ‘tense’ or ‘rapidly evolving’ situation that necessitated a ‘split-second judgment’ on the part of the officer,” she said. “But that standard doesn’t help the officers here. Mr. Watkins was unarmed, fully cooperative, posed no threat or flight risk, and was being arrested for a minor non-violent charge. There can be no excuse for injuring him in this case.”
Nora Ahmed, legal director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said, “We are deeply saddened by the lack of regard for Mr. Watkins’ human dignity and the City of Hammond’s failure to uphold the protections afforded to all citizens by the Constitution. The unwarranted abuse of a Black man during a routine handcuffing —when it was that Black man who called the police for help in the first place— underscores how deeply entrenched systemic racism is in the fabric of our nation.
"If those called to serve and protect our country continually fail to do so, prioritizing excessive force instead—even when circumstances are safe and easy—the situation is virtually certain to turn tragic when the call is slightly more nuanced,” she said.
“Only by putting an end to the routine and daily less-than-lethal injustices against people of color, which turn victims into purported ‘criminals’ on a dime, will we start to see fewer lives being lost at the hands of police," she added.
Ahmed said Watkins is the perfect example of the Justice Lab’s mission. He was not maimed and did not die, but he still encountered conduct that was unconstitutional. Justice Lab aims to alleviate more extreme instances of excessive force by focusing on instances before someone gets maimed or killed, she said.
“We are interested in filling a gap that exists in the state of Louisiana, but also in many other places, and that is why we have civil rights attorneys that bring cases on behalf of those individuals who have been maimed, severely beaten, or killed by police, but we rarely have lawyers picking up the case of those who are simply unconstitutionally stopped, unconstitutionally searched or unconstitutionally seized because those cases are uneconomical to bring,” Ahmed said.
Justice Lab has filed a total of 11 lawsuits across the state since its founding in June 2020. Since then, over 300 people have come forward with complaints of police conduct. According to state statute of limitations, there is only one year for people to bring forward an argument in federal court that police officers have engaged in unconstitutional conduct, Ahmed said.