An Indianapolis Public Schools family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Wednesday against three police officers — including two unnamed district police officers — after a video showing a city police officer punching a 17-year-old student was widely circulated.
The lawsuit names Officer Robert Lawson, of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, as the law enforcement official accused of punching the student outside of Shortridge High School last week.
It alleges that the student, identified by the initials A.W., believed the officer commanded him to stop and was responding by stepping forward. The student “maintained his arms at his sides and made no aggressive moves” when Lawson punched him in the jaw, the lawsuit says.
Lawson then put the student in a headlock and kneed him in the abdomen, the filings say.
The student was handcuffed and “unlawfully” arrested, but the officers later said they were “unarresting” him and released the teen, according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana,
The incident sparked public outrage, and it has placed the local police department in an unflattering light. In Indianapolis and beyond, many are watching closely how the city responds to what the police chief has called a “not taught or reasonable” use of force by a police officer against a black teenager. Lawson has been suspended without pay and is under internal investigation.
IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson raised concerns last week about the racial dynamics of the incident, drawing parallels between what happened at Shortridge and conflicts between police and black people in other parts of the country.
But the lawsuit puts the district in a potentially uncomfortable position because it also accuses two unnamed IPS police officers of violating the rights of the student and his family. The lawsuit could force the district to scrutinize the actions of its own police department against one of its students.
District spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black said IPS does not comment on pending litigation and did not respond to a question about whether the district is reviewing the officers’ actions.
“We are focused on ensuring the safety and security of all students remains our top priority,” she wrote in an email.
Black did not identify the two IPS officers. The lawsuit notes that the district did not respond to two inquiries about the officers’ identities.
Indianapolis Metropolitan police referred questions to a city attorney, who declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Terrance Kinnard, the attorney representing the family, was not available for comment.
The incident started when the Shortridge student, A.W., was assaulted by another group of students during school, according to the lawsuit. His relative, D.P., who also attends Shortridge, attempted to intervene in the fight. The IPS officers then sprayed D.P. with an “aerosol chemical agent” and restrained both students, the lawsuit alleges.
School officials then called IMPD officers to assist with the fight, and Danielle Pointer, who is related to both teens, was called to the school, according to the complaint.
Lawson, an unidentified IMPD officer, and one of the IPS officers escorted the two teens out of the school, where they met Pointer, the complaint states.
The lawsuit says that once the group was on the front steps of Shortridge, Pointer “was loudly protesting against the actions police took against D.P. and A.W.” and that A.W. was not allowed to retrieve his belongings from his locker.
As the conflict escalated, and Lawson said, “you want to go to jail . . . let’s go right now,” before A.W. stepped forward and Lawson punched him, the complaint alleges.
D.P. was filming on a phone throughout the incident. The lawsuit alleges that one of the IPS officers told him to stop filming and then attempted to seize the phone. Filings also claim Lawson described the use of force in a police report as an “open palm” strike, rather than the closed-fist punch that police chief said the video shows.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, attorney’s fees, and expenses, including “Punitive damages in an amount sufficient to deter Defendants from again engaging in the conduct described herein.”