The Minneapolis Police Department is defending itself against 61 lawsuits alleging that officers used excessive force that led to injuries, 53 of them filed from 2011 to 2013.
“I think there are so many it’s hard to keep on top of all of them,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the Minnesota affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
By contrast, St. Paul police face 19 pending misconduct lawsuits.
Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said she does not consider the number of misconduct suits against the city to be extraordinary.
“As the largest city in the state, we tend to get the most attention, positive or negative,” she e-mailed the Star Tribune. “Our Police Department has over a million contacts per year with members of the public. A very few of those interactions result in claims and lawsuits, as with any major metropolitan area around the country.”
If history is any indication, Minneapolis will win about half of those suits. Of 110 misconduct suits resolved since January 2011, 51 were dismissed by the court or resulted in a favorable trial verdict for the city, says Peter Ginder, Minneapolis deputy city attorney. In the other 59 cases, the city made payouts.
While Ginder did not have exact data Wednesday, he estimated the city averaged 32 new cases of police misconduct annually since 2009. The number appears to be increasing slightly since 2009, he said.
From 2006 to 2012, the city paid out about $14 million in police misconduct cases, the Star Tribune reported in June. In May, it agreed to pay out $3 million for the 2010 death of a black homeless man restrained by police at the downtown YMCA that the medical examiner ruled a homicide.
In two incidents that have garnered much publicity in recent weeks — one in Apple Valley, the other in Green Bay, Wis. — white officers made racist remarks and got into fights with blacks, according to police reports. But many other incidents of alleged Minneapolis police misbehavior have drawn no headlines.
A rogue subset of officers?
Darryl Gill says two officers arrested him outside a downtown nightclub on a traffic warrant in April 2012. They “roughly” took him to the ground, injuring his ribs, grabbed a dreadlock, pulling it out of his scalp, his suit says.
Gill, who was 33 at the time, told an officer he’d knock him out if he were not in handcuffs. The officer “responded to Gill’s statement by violently jerking Gill’s left arm so hard that he fractured Gill’s wrist in two places,” his suit claims. His medical expenses were $3,500. Obstructing legal process charges were dropped, the suit said.
“There are some good professional police officers,” said Robert Bennett, whose law firm has won millions of dollars in cases against the city. But Bennett, whose firm represents Gill, says there’s a subset of officers that “act with impunity.” He said some clients are white and some officers he sues are minorities, so misconduct comes from a police view that they can “get away with it,” rather than racial bias, he says.
But the ACLU’s Nelson believes race is a factor. “I think there has long been a sense [among minorities] that there’s an ingrained police culture to violate rights and dehumanize minorities,” she said.
Melvin Dickerson Jr., 46, claims he was refused admission to Lee’s Liquor Lounge on Oct. 29, 2011, by a bouncer. After Dickerson sat down on the curb, police officers ordered him to leave the sidewalk. Dickerson said he had a right to be there.
The suit, also brought by the Bennett firm, says officer Sundiata Bronson grabbed Dickerson by the shirt and wrist, started to walk away, then “rammed Dickerson front-first into a large window in front of Lee’s,” which shattered. The broken glass caused “significant lacerations” to Dickerson’s face, wrist and a finger, requiring 22 sutures. Charges against him were dismissed.
In its response, the city says “to gain control” of Dickerson, Bronson “placed” Dickerson “against a window for leverage and admits the window broke.”
“A lot of street officers think they can use excessive, even deadly, force without any real fear of repercussions,” said Albert Goins, an attorney who represents individuals who allege police misconduct.
Retired Sgt. Al Berryman, past president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, says department culture does not foster police violence.
“Cops ... go into dangerous situations, into tumultuous situations, and try to make decision for their safety and for the victim,” he said. “You have fights and people get hurt and there are broken bones.
“I do believe cops, like everyone else, make mistakes,” he said. “You’re excited, you’re scared, you’re nervous, and you react, and sometimes you react and wish you could undo it.”
Lacerations, but no charges
Adolphas Baldwin, 26, alleges in a suit that on Nov. 28, 2011, he was walking home with groceries about 7 p.m. with a distant cousin in north Minneapolis when two officers got out of a patrol car and pointed their guns at them. His hands in the air, Baldwin claims, he said words to the effect of, “I guess you all have nothing better to do.”
The officers allegedly struck him in the head and threw him to the ground, the suit alleges. While his cousin was handcuffed, one officer allegedly kicked Baldwin in the back, head and upper body. He was handcuffed, and the two were put in a squad car.
The officers then let the two men leave without issuing a citation, the suit says. Baldwin went home, called 911 and was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where it took two staples to close a scalp laceration.
The officers followed him to the hospital and gave him a citation for obstruction and spitting on the sidewalk. The charges later were dropped.
Segal says that just because a suit is brought “does not mean that there was wrongdoing by an officer.”
The city attorney’s office went to trial in 15 of the 110 resolved suits from 2009 to the present and won favorable verdicts 13 times. In the 59 cases where it made payouts, the city often did not admit it was at fault, figuring that settling would be cheaper than risking an adverse verdict. Lawyers’ fees runs hundreds of dollars an hour. In the David Smith settlement, $1.9 million of the city’s $3 million payout went to the attorneys for Smith’s family.
The Star Tribune has reported the city’s 12 costliest settlements from 2006 to 2012 resulted in no officer discipline. But Segal denies there’s lack of discipline for misconduct. She said she has “full confidence” that Police Chief Janeé Harteau will take “decisive disciplinary action” if misconduct occurs. “Accountability is of critical importance for the department to succeed in its mission and to have the trust of the public,” Segal said.