U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Filmmaker arrested at ‘Cop City’ protest, sues Atlanta and police

Incident Details

Date of Incident
September 8, 2021
Location
Atlanta, Georgia
Case number
21TR073931
Case Status
Ongoing
Type of case
Civil

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Arresting Authority
Atlanta Police Department
Charges
Detention Date
Release Date
Unnecessary use of force?
No
REUTERS/CHENEY ORR

A protester is detained during demonstrations in Atlanta over a planned police training center on Jan. 21, 2023. Filmmaker Lev Omelchenko sued the City of Atlanta and police after his arrest while covering a 2021 protest against the center.

— REUTERS/CHENEY ORR
September 8, 2021

Journalist Lev Omelchenko, arrested on Sept. 8, 2021, while filming a protest in Atlanta, has since filed a lawsuit against the city and two police officers.

The lawsuit, filed in September 2023, states that Omelchenko, an independent documentary filmmaker, was arrested while recording a protest outside the Atlanta home of then-City Councilmember Natalyn Archibong as she took part in a virtual council meeting. Four protesters also arrested have filed similar lawsuits.

The Atlanta City Council, at its meeting, approved the lease for a controversial public safety training center for the Atlanta Police Department. Opponents of the center, who dubbed it “Cop City,” allege that the 85-acre, $90 million facility will harm the environment and contribute to the militarization of the police in the Atlanta area.

According to Omelchenko’s lawsuit, around 12 people were holding cardboard signs and chanting in front of Archibong’s home. Omelchenko was “present at the site of this protest but did not participate in the protest itself,” the suit states, adding that he was “not chanting but was present in his role as a filmmaker to film the protest.” The suit notes that the protesters and Omelchenko were “standing or striding as near as practicable to an outside edge of the roadway” on a street without sidewalks or shoulder.

About 20 minutes after police arrived, officers told the protesters that they were in violation of the noise ordinance, the suit says. Soon after, officers told the protesters that they were obstructing traffic and ordered them to leave. After a few minutes of walking back and forth, the protesters decided to leave. At that time, one of the officers ordered the arrest of the protesters.

Olemchenko was also arrested, the lawsuit says, despite the fact that he “was not participating in the protest, was not chanting, but was instead filming the entire time” and “clearly informed the officers of same.”

Omelchenko was charged with “pedestrian walking in roadway,” a misdemeanor, and released on his own recognizance on Sept. 9, 2021, according to his arrest report and court records reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. He pleaded not guilty on Oct. 27, 2021, and the case was transferred from Atlanta Municipal Court to Fulton State Court.

According to the lawsuit, “The Fulton County Solicitor’s Office never filed an accusation in Plaintiff’s case and therefore no criminal prosecution against this Plaintiff is currently pending.” It went on to state that “based on this information and belief – and although the case was never formally dismissed – Plaintiff believes that Fulton County Solicitor’s Office has decided not to prosecute his case.”

The solicitor’s office, when asked for an update on the case, told the Tracker that the case was handled in the Municipal Court of Atlanta. Fulton County, in response to an open records request, said, “We have no record of this case as of yet.”

Drago Cepar Jr., an attorney representing Omelchenko in the lawsuit, had no further comment when reached by phone.

The lawsuit alleges that Omelchenko was falsely arrested in violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights, and that the detention was retaliation for exercising his right to film the protest.

It further asserts that the filmmaker was arrested “because officers believed that he shared the views of the protesters” and accuses the city of failing to properly train police officers and of routinely arresting protesters “under the pretext of violating pedestrian in the roadway laws.”

The suit seeks damages and the recovery of attorney’s fees and other expenses.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].