A protester whose testicle exploded into pieces when a Los Angeles police officer shot him with a hard-foam projectile during demonstrations against police brutality last summer filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging excessive force and other violations of his constitutional rights.
The lawsuit, which names the city and LAPD Chief Michel Moore as defendants, challenges a finding by the department's Use of Force Review Board, made public Friday, that the officer was in policy when he shot 29-year-old Ben Montemayor at a protest in Hollywood in June.
The lawsuit cites multiple "after-action" reviews that in recent weeks have catalogued the LAPD's failures to properly prepare for the protests or train its officers on the use of such projectiles. It argues that those failures were a "moving force" behind Montemayor's injuries.
In an interview with The Times on Monday, Montemayor said he hoped his case — which seeks unspecified monetary damages — helps hold the LAPD accountable and protect protesters by challenging the false narrative that such projectiles aren't capable of inflicting serious harm.
"They're used irresponsibly. They're overused," he said. "I don't want them to be downplayed."
Montemayor had been holding a large sign calling for the LAPD to be defunded when officers in riot gear began advancing. According to his lawsuit, Montemayor had not heard a dispersal order but was nonetheless walking in the direction he believed police wanted demonstrators to go when two officers rushed forward, ripped the sign from his hands and shoved him backward.
"As Mr. Montemayor stood there, unarmed, not resisting arrest, posing no threat whatsoever to anyone around him, and having just been violently shoved, a third officer less than ten feet away aimed his green [40-millimeter] launcher at Mr. Montemayor and intentionally shot him in the groin with a high-speed plastic, hard foam projectile," the lawsuit alleges.
Police body-camera footage from the incident shows an officer shoving Montemayor backward as he puts his hands up, then shooting him in the groin at relatively close range. LAPD policy states that officers should target protesters with such projectiles only if they represent a physical threat to officers, not simply for failing to comply with a dispersal order.
Montemayor's testicles immediately swelled, the right one growing to the size of a grapefruit, his lawsuit states. Doctors at a nearby emergency room performed a scrotal ultrasound, informed Montemayor that he was at risk of losing his testicles and rushed him into emergency surgery — which involved "piecing back together portions of his testicle which had exploded," the lawsuit states.
Since the shooting, Montemayor has undergone physical therapy and suffers from emotional distress and trauma, his lawsuit claims. He has "flashbacks of being attacked" whenever he sees police officers, and has not felt comfortable protesting since the shooting.
The lawsuit calls Montemayor's treatment "a horrific example of the unjustified police abuse and First Amendment retaliation meted out violently against peaceful protestors." One of his attorneys, Dan Stormer, said the LAPD must be held accountable in such cases.
“A civilized society cannot survive if the police are allowed to run wild in the streets," Stormer said in a statement Monday. "The LAPD is out of control."
The summer protests lasted for days and devolved into violent clashes between police and protesters in multiple neighborhoods. Thousands were arrested amid nightly curfews. Dozens of officers and protesters were injured. Stores and other commercial spaces were burglarized and burned.
Montemayor's lawsuit is one of several filed against the LAPD since, including a class-action case brought by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and other activist groups that alleges an array of violations. Montemayor's case also comes just days after the Police Commission published a report in which Moore outlined the status of hundreds of allegations of excessive force and other misconduct by officers during the unrest.
Few individual cases were identified in the report, but Montemayor's was mentioned. The report said that the Use of Force Review Board had recommended the officer who shot Montemayor receive a tactical debriefing, but that the shooting was within policy. The civilian Police Commission still must review the case.
On Monday, Montemayor said he wasn't surprised the LAPD's review panel had found the shooting within policy, but was disappointed. "It's just hard for my brain to grasp," he said.
Shaleen Shanbhag, another of his attorneys, said the finding doesn't show excessive force wasn't used, but that the LAPD endorses peaceful protesters being targeted with weapons that are "very clearly intended to incapacitate someone."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.