Des Moines police officers accuse council member of assault in lawsuit over 2020 protests

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Two Des Moines police officers are suing six protestors, including now-City Council member Indira Sheumaker, who they allege assaulted them during a chaotic melee two years ago.

The July 1, 2020, protest in front of the Iowa Capitol occurred during ongoing unrest that began after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. At least 17 people were arrested, according to police statements at the time.

Officers Peter Wilson and Jeffrey George, who were in the center of the scrum, are accusing Sheumaker in the suit of assault and battery. Also named as defendants are Clayton Stein, Eva Lewin, Anna Gebhardt, Bradley Penna and Jennifer Erwin.

All were charged with assault or attempted interference with arrests in the confrontation.

Sheumaker and other defendants could not be reached for comment. The Des Moines Black Liberation Movement staged a protest at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Court Avenue outside the building housing the offices of the police officers' lawyer. Organizer Jaylen Cavil, a top supporter of Sheumaker's City Council campaign, led about 50 demonstrators in chants opposing the Des Moines Police Department.

What happened outside the state Capitol in June 2020?

BLM, then known as Des Moines Black Lives Matter, organized the 2020 demonstration to demand that Gov. Kim Reynolds restore felon voting rights by executive order after failing to win legislative approval for the move. She issued the order the following month.

During the demonstration, police attempted to arrest three people in connection with a June 20, 2020, protest that resulted in damage to a police vehicle and other property in the parking lot of a south side Hy-Vee store.

Previously: Police, protesters blame one another after 17-plus arrests made at Iowa Capitol

As described in the lawsuit, filed June 30, other protestors responded by attempting to forcefully "de-arrest" those being detained. Two defendants, Sheumaker and Stein, are accused of putting George in a chokehold. Sheumaker additionally is accused of striking Wilson and Lewing, Gebhardt, Penna and Erwin are accused of pulling on Wilson's arms to prevent him from making an arrest.

In the wake of the arrests, demonstrators blamed police for causing the conflict. Des Moines Black Lives Matter said in a statement at the time that police "arrived and acted extremely aggressive towards protesters," and accused officers also of using chokeholds and body-slams.

A protester is arrested outside the Iowa Capitol July 1, 2020.
A protester is arrested outside the Iowa Capitol July 1, 2020.

Police deployed pepper spray during the altercation, and reported that one officer lost control of his sidearm during the fight, although it wasn't clear if a protestor had taken it or if it had been simply knocked free of its holster. The officer was able to recover the gun.

The Black Lives Matter statement acknowledged attempting to "de-arrest" protestors, which it characterized as a "non-violent response."

All six defendants were criminally charged, according to the complaint. Several, including Sheumaker, pleaded guilty, and Sheumaker was sentenced to probation.

Not all of the cases are available via online court records.

BLM tactics 'domestic terrorism,' suit says

The lawsuit alleges that BLM's tactics, including de-arresting, were anything but non-violent.

According to the complaint, the protesters' tactics had included blocking interstate highway traffic with decoy cars and hazardous road obstructions and making anonymous false reports of violence and gunmen. De-arresting tactics included "play tug-of-war with the cops" "mace a cop," and "get the cops from behind," according to articles allegedly shared among protestors, and BLM members arranged martial arts demonstrations before taking to the streets.

"While purportedly claiming to be engaged in peaceful protest, their actions and plans were nothing short of domestic terrorism," said the complaint, asserting that BLM efforts to divert police from responding to calls and to de-arrest protestors both constituted terrorism.

A protester is arrested outside the Iowa Capitol July 1, 2020. The arrests came during a series of brawls on the Capitol's east side.
A protester is arrested outside the Iowa Capitol July 1, 2020. The arrests came during a series of brawls on the Capitol's east side.

The Des Moines Black Liberation Movement is not named as a party in the suit and did not respond to a message seeking comment.

George and Wilson believe more people should be aware of what demonstrators did during the protests, and that the criminal cases against those arrested did not do enough to hold them accountable, said their attorney, Mark Hedberg.

"There was no accountability in terms of what they did ...," he said.

Des Moines City Council considering police policy changes

The lawsuit comes at a time when the City Council is considering a number of actions related to the police department, including possibly creating a third-party police review board to provide oversight in police misconduct investigations.

Sheumaker was elected to the council in November 2021 on a platform of defunding the police, defeating incumbent Bill Gray, who had served since 2014.

She has been a vocal dissenter, though according to city spokesperson Al Setka she has not attended meetings since May 23. She has favored the creation of a review board, saying City Manager Scott Sanders' proposal for an advisory-only board — the only option he believes is available under state law — isn't strong enough.

When she was a candidate for council she said she would not have run for office if it weren't for her involvement in the protests.

“I got involved protesting, showing up to the (Iowa) Capitol, got tear-gassed ... and then a lot of members from organizations and older members of the community were encouraging us to go to City Council meetings,” Sheumaker told the Des Moines Register.

Des Moines City Council candidate Indira Sheumaker gives an impromptu speech at Mars Cafe in Des Moines after beating incumbent Bill Gray on Nov. 2, 2021. Sheumaker has been sued by two police officers for allegedly assaulting them during a July 1, 2020, protest.
Des Moines City Council candidate Indira Sheumaker gives an impromptu speech at Mars Cafe in Des Moines after beating incumbent Bill Gray on Nov. 2, 2021. Sheumaker has been sued by two police officers for allegedly assaulting them during a July 1, 2020, protest.

Contacted by the Register, Councilman Joe Gatto said the lawsuit will not change the work the council does.

"I'm always willing to improve our relationship with all departments," Gatto said. "I'm willing to take on and change policies and to make sure that we're using the best practices throughout our city and all departments and I will continue to do that no matter what."

More: Des Moines officials consider seeking national accreditation for police department. What does that mean?

Hedberg said the two officers are suing as individuals, rather than representatives of the department, and aren't concerned about any possible tension between the council and the department due to the lawsuit.

"That’s not their consideration. They are police officers, individuals, that had a right to do this," he said of the suit.

The lawsuit notes that Wilson suffered bruises and scrapes during the brawl. Hedberg said he was not able to say whether the offices suffered other lasting injuries.

The suit seeks unspecified damages, and Hedberg said he believes his clients will be entitled to punitive damages under Iowa law.

Staff writer Philip Joens contributed to this article.

William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at wrmorris2@registermedia.com, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Des Moines City Council member sued by police officers over protests