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Federal lawsuit filed against Atlanta police over raid at gay club

Geoffrey Calhoun was at the gay bar at the time of the raid and said some officers didn't identify themselves as police.
Geoffrey Calhoun was at the gay bar at the time of the raid and said some officers didn't identify themselves as police.
  • Gay bar patrons allege police used anti-gay slurs, violent tactics during raid
  • Police raided the Atlanta Eagle bar in September; patrons say they feared for their lives
  • Atlanta official said he hadn't been served with suit and wouldn't comment

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- A federal lawsuit was filed Tuesday against Atlanta police over a September raid at a gay club, on behalf of 19 patrons who say they were forcibly searched and detained.

The suit, filed by the gay-rights group Lambda Legal, names Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington and 48 officers who were at the Atlanta Eagle bar the night of September 10.

"The Atlanta Police Department dispatched about 20 to 30 officers to the Atlanta Eagle, including its 'Red Dog' unit dressed in SWAT team gear," according to a statement from Lambda Legal. "But inside the bar, the APD found no public sex, no drugs or illegal weapons." No patrons were charged with any crime, the organization said.

During the raid, patrons were made to lie face down on the floor while background checks were run on everyone, the statement said. "Eagle bar patrons heard anti-gay slurs; were forced to lay in spilled beer and broken glass; and one was forced to lie on the floor even though he had injured his back in the Iraq War."

Some of the patrons were restrained with handcuffs, and officers used excessive force, including shoving some people to the floor and kicking others on the floor, the lawsuit says. Authorities searched everyone on the property, seizing their driver's licenses or other identification, the suit says.

"These actions were taken without particularized reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that any individual patron, let alone every person at the establishment, was involved in criminal activity whatsoever," said the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Atlanta City Attorney Roger Bhandari said in a statement Monday that the city had not been served with the suit or had an opportunity to review it, so he would not comment. Bhandari's office told CNN on Tuesday that its response was the same, as it had not seen the suit.

The only charges filed were against Eagle employees, for allegedly violating the city's law about unlicensed adult entertainment "because four dancers were observed, in the words of the arresting officers, allegedly 'wearing underwear' and 'dancing,' " the lawsuit said.

"Imagine if the police walked into a Wal-Mart and see someone shoplifting, and because they see what they think is a crime taking place in Wal-Mart, they take everyone at Wal-Mart, throw them on the floor, spread their legs, put their hands in their pockets, take their IDs, put their name in the computer, simply because they're out of place or someone else may or may not be doing something wrong," co-counsel Daniel Grossman said at a news conference Tuesday.

The suit seeks damages and alleges that police violated the patrons' constitutional rights and that the individual officers committed false imprisonment, assault, battery and trespassing. It also requests a jury trial.

"The illegal activity going on in the Atlanta Eagle that night was committed by the APD," Greg Nevins, supervising senior staff attorney in Lambda Legal's southern regional office, based in Atlanta, said in the statement. "If it is APD procedure for elderly men and wounded veterans to be thrown to the floor and harassed simply for being in a bar having a drink after work, then APD should change its procedures."

"People have asked me why I'm doing this," plaintiff Geoffrey Calhoun told reporters. "I'm not doing it because I have a vendetta against the police. I work for a police department. I'm an emergency communications officer. I do my part to make sure these officers go home. I don't work for the city of Atlanta.

"I was in the bar drinking beer, playing a video game, and I was dehumanized and humiliated and laid on the floor for no reason," he said. "That's why I'm doing it."

The suit alleges undercover officers entered the bar before 11 p.m. and had a drink, then later "began screaming at patrons and employees to 'hit the floor' and get down on the ground."

"Several plaintiffs were in terror and feared for their lives, believing that the Eagle was being robbed or invaded by criminals or gay-bashers who might kill or injure them," the suit continues.

Other officers came in, including the "Red Dog Unit," a special force that provides "aggressive police presence" in areas with high drug use, the suit said, citing the Atlanta Police Web site. Many of the officers in that unit were wearing black, paramilitary-style clothing not immediately recognizable as police uniforms, the suit says.

While lying on the floor, some people asked permission to move away from the broken glass and were told to "stay down and shut the [expletive] up," the suit alleges. In all, they lay on the floor for 30 minutes to more than two hours, as they were released one by one or in small groups, the suit says.

Those who asked questions were also told to shut up, threatened with arrest for disorderly conduct or "threatened with violence and physical harm," the suit says. "Some were retaliated against by being forced to remain at the Eagle long after they had been searched.

"All persons at the Eagle complied fully, promptly and peacefully with all demands made by the officers, no person at the Eagle offered any physical resistance to the officers whatsoever, and none was charged with obstructing the officers in any way," the suit says.

Police have said that if they go into a bar, it is procedure to have patrons lie on the floor and be searched, and everyone's identification is taken and checked, Nevins told reporters.

"They didn't say this the night of the Eagle raid ... this happened like a month later," he said of the police comments. "They had plenty of time to figure out all the facts, and they knew they were going to be meeting with the media, and it was ultimately recorded, and they specifically went on record and said, 'This is what we always do, this is standard operating procedure,' and that's what makes this case so outlandish."

CNN's Carolina Sanchez and Stan Moberg contributed to this report.