Jury Sends Message to LA Cops: Stop Hurting People
At the trial of Allen Harris' claim against Police Officer Alex Tellez, not only did the jury award the plaintiff $1.6 million for injuries suffered (note, not for rights violated, but physical injury), but they levied a $90,000 award against Tellez personally. From the LA Times:
One of the foremost issues that angered the jury was the testimony of ten cops, each of whom couldn't remember much of anything.
Allen Harris, 56, was awarded nearly $1.6 million Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court for his injuries, marking the latest in a long string of seven-figure verdicts against the Los Angeles Police Department for officer misconduct.
On Thursday, the jury returned to court and took the somewhat unusual step of ordering the accused officer, Alex Tellez, to pay an additional $90,000 himself after finding “clear and convincing evidence” he acted maliciously toward Harris, according to court records.
Perhaps the message is getting through to jurors, that rather than look away when cops are conveniently less than forthright on the stand, they need to be held as accountable, if not more, for facile perjury?
All of the officers testified that they did not know who had handcuffed Harris, according to both juror Gayle Chavkin and Harris’ attorney. The officers also claimed under oath that Harris, a stroke victim who walks with a pronounced limp, showed no signs of being disabled during the encounter, the attorney and juror said.
“It was the same testimony over and over and over: ‘I don’t recall. I don’t recall,’ ” Chavkin said. “They were clearly just closing ranks.... It felt untruthful to us. Somebody matching Officer Tellez’s description handcuffed Mr. Harris that day and hurt him.”
The background to the incident is, sadly, typical, a raid that yielded nothing except indignity and injury to an innocent man.
The verdict stems from a November 2009 case in which the LAPD was investigating an armed robbery of a store where one of Harris’ sons worked. The son was a suspect in the crime, and the detective investigating the case obtained a warrant to search the Inglewood apartment Harris shared with his son.Nothing was found and Harris' son was never charged. That, of course, doesn't mean that the police would treat Harris, a step removed from the potential criminal, as a threat to their safety and, exercising the First Rule of Policing, make certain that he was both incapacitated and cowed by their might. Nothing makes that clearer than some needless pain inflicted on a disabled stroke victim whose condition couldn't tolerate their physical demands.
When officers serving the warrant knocked on the apartment door early Nov. 10, the son answered and was quickly taken into custody, Harris and his attorney, V. James DeSimone, said in an interview. Officers then entered the apartment and ordered Harris to put his hands up, turn around and walk backward toward the officers, Harris said.
Harris put his right arm up and told the officers repeatedly that he was unable to follow their commands because of his disability, he said. Ignoring his pleas, an officer Harris later identified as Tellez clamped a cuff around his left wrist, pulled him out of the apartment and forced both his arms behind his back to fully handcuff him.
But who really cares? When it comes to raiding homes and asserting absolute control over someone, collateral damage is sure to follow. That's the price of LA freedom.
That the jury was sufficiently outraged by the police attempt to conceal who harmed Harris by circling the blue wagons and professing ignorance reflects an interesting potential shift in public perception. How rare is it that the public, who comprise juries, simply refuses to accept that the police lie on the witness stand? While this jury may not have gone quite that far, they went far enough to conclude that the ten cops who couldn't recall anything weren't being truthful. That's pretty good.
And from that starting point, accepting the plaintiff's contention that Tellez was the cop who needlessly clamped on cuffs so tight as to cause Harris nerve damage, the jury reached a second conclusion: that he did so maliciously. Despite Harris (and remembering that he was not the target of the warrant, but merely the target's father) plea to the cops that he was disabled and couldn't physically comply with their demands, the officer imposed his will on him anyway.
While the award will no doubt be appealed, and it's dubious whether a punitive damages award will be sustained, and even if it is, whether it will be held against the officer rather than paid by the government, it remains an important message to cops. Don't inflict needless harm for fun. Just don't harm someone for no reason.
In ordering Tellez to pay the $90,000 in punitive damages, Chavkin said jurors felt “we needed to send a message that this is not right — don’t ever do this again. We felt there needed to be a consequence for him disregarding Mr. Harris’ pleas.”
Then again, it's one jury and one award. Hopefully, the thought of a $90 grand hit will echo through the ranks of LAPD, giving pause to officers who have a choice to make when they can either do their job or do needless harm. Or the union will rail against how crazy juries like this put cops' life at risk by making them hesitate before needlessly harming innocent people.
While I hope this verdict reflects something larger than a one-off jury disinclined to embrace police testimony and concerned that a man not be needlessly harmed, it may well be nothing more than that, or a left coast jury that fails to reflect the sensibilities that good Americans elsewhere maintain. To the extent this post reflects ambivalence, or perhaps smells a bit aspirational, it's because I remain doubtful that people are coming to any meaingful realization about police culture and misconduct. I want it to happen, but that doesn't mean it will.