Lawsuits

Woman Struck by Rubber Bullet While Protesting Police Brutality Sues City of Fort Lauderdale

LaToya Ratlieff was struck by a rubber bullet fired by a Fort Lauderdale police officer during a 2020 protest against police brutality.
LaToya Ratlieff was struck by a rubber bullet fired by a Fort Lauderdale police officer during a 2020 protest against police brutality. Photo via U.S. District Court
The images of LaToya Ratlieff's facial injuries were gruesome: her bandaged forehead, her swollen and bruised eyes, barely able to open. The photos were widely shared on social media after Ratlieff was struck by a rubber bullet fired by a Fort Lauderdale police officer at a peaceful protest against police brutality in the aftermath of the 2020 killing of George Floyd. The irony of a Black woman chanting "Hands up, don't shoot" and holding a sign that reads "Stop Killing Us" sustaining a serious injury at the hands of a police officer was not lost on the internet, and her case received national media attention.

But this week, which marks the second anniversary of the protest, there's a new development in Ratlieff's story. She has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Fort Lauderdale and nine Fort Lauderdale police officers present at that protest, including Eliezer Ramos, who fired the projectile that struck her. Today, at 10 a.m., Ratlieff and her attorneys, Michael T. Davis, Ben Kuehne, and Stuart Ratzan, will hold a press conference to discuss the lawsuit in front of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. They are requesting a jury trial and seeking damages in excess of $50,000.

"Defendant Ramos deployed munitions in a manner that created a substantial risk of causing death or serious bodily harm. Ramos intentionally fired direct impact rounds into crowds of peaceful demonstrators knowing they had been tear gassed and were frantically trying to escape the cloud of tear gas," states the complaint, which was filed on Monday, May 30, and embedded at the end of this article. "Ms. Ratlieff was struck in the eye by the direct impact round unleashed by Ramos, causing her severe, painful, and permanent physical and emotional injuries."

Fort Lauderdale City Attorney Alan Boileau’s office did not return New Times' request for comment.

On May 31, 2020, thousands gathered in downtown Fort Lauderdale to protest police brutality and chanted and held signs. According to the lawsuit, as the protest was winding down and protestors were heading toward a public parking garage to leave, an officer shoved a kneeling woman and then "without warning or lawful justification" began deploying tear gas at demonstrators, some of whom were trying to leave.

Ratlieff's attorneys allege that Fort Lauderdale police officers deployed tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd without first asking protesters to disperse or otherwise declare the gathering to be unlawful. The lawsuit states that the Fort Lauderdale Police Department prerecorded a dispersal order and could have played it at any time but chose not to.

"There was no dispersal order. There was no curfew violation. Those who gathered and assembled, including the media observers, were lawfully exercising First Amendment rights in a place they had a right to be," the lawsuit states. "Their presence was lawful, and their assembly was never declared unlawful."

After she passed the parking garage at Southeast Second Street and Southeast First Avenue, Ratlieff began choking from the tear gas, the lawsuit states, and was recovering when she was struck in the head by a rubber bullet, or "Kinetic Impact Projectile" (KIP), which is considered to be "less than lethal" and safer than firearms. However, studies have documented instances of serious bodily injury and even death from KIPs, especially if they are deployed in a crowd.

"Ramos did not aim for the thighs, buttocks, and legs, the recommended target areas. He aimed for the abdomen," the complaint states. "By firing, as a first resort, at areas other than those recommended by the product specifications, Ramos increased the substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury naturally associated with the use of KIPs in crowd control situations, and knew or reasonably should have known of the increased risk."

In the complaint, Ratlieff's attorneys accuse the defendants of battery, negligent use of direct impact munitions, and violating her civil rights. It directly calls out Ramos' "negligent operation of his firearm directly and proximately."

According to the lawsuit, Ratlieff suffered "mental anguish, bodily injury, pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of capacity of the enjoyment of life, expense of hospitalization, medical treatment."

The lawsuit raises the issue of qualified immunity, the legal principle that often protects police officers from being sued personally for things they do while on the job.

The suit comes 15 months after a Fort Lauderdale Police Department internal affairs investigation cleared Ramos of wrongdoing, finding that it was not his "intention" to hit Ratlieff when he fired the rubber bullet that hit her.

During her interviews with the police department’s internal affairs officers, the lawsuit states, Ratlieff was told Ramos was a "good guy" who hadn’t meant to shoot her — and was then accused of throwing projectiles at police "despite no evidence supporting the accusation and abundant contemporaneous video and personal observations that she did nothing of the sort."

According to the lawsuit, the City of Fort Lauderdale did not investigate officers' decision to deploy tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators without warning.

Ratlieff is the great-niece of civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. In June 1963, Hamer was arrested with her fellow activists at a whites-only lunch counter and attacked by police in jail. The damage to Hamer’s eyes, legs, and kidneys would affect her for the rest of her life.

"From her infancy, Ms. Ratlieff was encouraged to speak out peacefully against injustice and to never be silent in the face of oppression, just as her great-aunt, Ms. Hamer, did," the lawsuit states. "Through civil rights pioneer Fannie Lou Hamer, Ms. Ratlieff learned at an early age the power of organized community gatherings, peaceful in nature, designed to speak to the powerful, governmental institutions, and the favored about the need to improve society and implement social justice reforms."

Hamer died in 1977. 
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