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The death of 17-year-old Eli McCoy came at the hands of the Baltimore Housing Authority police on the morning of Nov. 25, 1999. But the accounts of his death differed dramatically. According to the police, they chased McCoy after he stole a $20 bill from a woman, then cornered him in an alley. McCoy, the police said, sneered at them, then put his hand under his sweater. Officer Kenneth Dean, believing the teen was going for a weapon, shot him in the chest, then fired two more shots. Dean was cleared in an investigation. According to other witnesses, when the police cornered McCoy, he raised his hands and didn’t drop them until the first shot hit his chest, blowing off the top part of his heart, said plaintiffs’ attorney A. Dwight Pettit of Baltimore. Just before the shot, Pettit says, McCoy “smirked at the officers, saying, ‘OK, you got me, what are you going to do, shoot me?’ “ At that point, says Pettit, Dean opened fire. No weapon was ever found on or near McCoy, nor the $20 bill he was alleged to have stolen. Until recently, jurors in Baltimore listening to the McCoy family’s action against the officer and the housing authority would likely have believed the police. But times have changed. On May 29, in a verdict that mirrors many others across the country, the jury rejected the police account and awarded the McCoy family $7 million. It is a pattern that is repeating itself in jurisdiction after jurisdiction. Jurors are regularly rejecting the testimony of police officers and awarding substantial damages to plaintiffs claiming police responsibility for personal injuries, deaths and violations of civil rights. ATTITUDE SHIFT “Jurors used to come in predisposed to believe the police,” says Arturo J. Gonzalez of San Francisco’s Morrison & Foerster, who has handled numerous cases against police departments. “Now jurors are more neutral and some are even predisposed to disbelieving police.” “For many, many decades, police enjoyed the benefit of the doubt with the American public,” says John Smathers of Laurel, Md.’s McGowan, Cecil & Smathers, who won a $4 million excessive force verdict last year. “Today, the American public is more willing to look at officers and citizens on an equal footing.” This skepticism has improved the odds for plaintiffs’ lawyers to pursue these lawsuits against the police in court. In the past two years, juries have awarded a series of verdicts against the police in a wide variety of cases. In late 1999, a Washington, D.C., jury ordered the city police department to pay $98.1 million for the failure to protect an informant. In 2000, a New York jury awarded $92 million to a young man who was rendered paraplegic when shot by an off-duty police officer. Awards in 2001 include: � $6 million in an excessive force-wrongful death action in Detroit, in which the defense claimed the victim shot by an off-duty officer was not only drunk but had attempted to run down the officer with his Jeep. � $1 million in Baltimore in an excessive force case in which the only physical injury was a broken wrist. � $8 million in Oregon to a woman who was shot by a state trooper who had pulled her over for speeding. All of the juries were presented with conflicting reports of the events and chose the one offered by the plaintiffs. The trend toward disbelieving the police has also led to swifter, and ever-larger, pretrial settlements, says Johnnie Cochran of Los Angeles’ Cochran, Cherry, Givens & Smith. In April, Cochran was a member of a team of lawyers who won an $18 million settlement from the city of Chicago over the shooting death of a young woman. The case settled just before trial, he says, after the city discovered through a focus group that a massive verdict was nearly guaranteed. The single most important factor in changing juror attitudes toward the police was the 1991 beating of Rodney King, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers. “Rodney King was something that everybody saw,” says Gonzalez. “It changed national perceptions.” But this has been reinforced by other, more recent, incidents, he says. “Since then you’ve had Ruby Ridge, Waco, the guy in New York who was shot 26 times,” and the Abner Louima case, he says. Others include the Rampart Division scandal in Los Angeles and episodes involving Gonzalez’s clients, including the parents of an 11-year-old boy killed when shot in the back during a police raid on his home. The growing recognition that these incidents happen and the rising size of settlements and verdicts have encouraged prospective plaintiffs to file cases against the police, says Cochran: “The police no longer have this aura of invincibility.” Plaintiffs’ lawyers are also more willing to take cases, says Gonzalez. “Ten years ago, it was literally impossible for someone to find a lawyer to take a civil rights case on the part of a Latino,” he says. “Now, if the plaintiff looks credible, plaintiffs’ lawyers are more willing to roll the dice.” There are no figures on how many suits are being filed, but plaintiffs’ lawyers confirm that numbers are rising. Cochran now has about 250 cases pending against police departments and government agencies nationwide over police misconduct. Pettit reports that “we’re averaging about 25 to 40 calls a week in my office,” from prospective plaintiffs seeking to file claims. Not just the number of cases, but the size of verdicts is rising, says Cochran. “All over the country, we’re seeing bigger numbers.” A false arrest-false imprisonment case in California may be the poster child for how verdicts and settlements against police agencies have risen over the past decade. Los Angeles police deputies arrested two Pico Rivera, Calif., couples in 1984 and charged them with child molestation. Nearly all the children recanted and the charges were dismissed at the preliminary hearing. The two couples sued the county and in 1990 a Los Angeles jury awarded the plaintiffs $3.7 million. This was reversed and retried in 1995. The verdict then was $7.3 million. This was reversed as well and set for retrial. One couple settled for $4 million and the second couple, Tim and Helen O’Keefe, went to trial for a third time in 2000. The verdict this time was for $13.5 million. The O’Keefes settled in April for $9.9 million. Valentin v. County of Los Angeles, C 529739 (Super. Ct., Los Angeles). There are more settlements today, largely because of the fear of facing juries, Cochran adds. In New York, this factor is clearly affecting litigation, says Fay Leoussis, chief of the city’s torts division. The negative publicity over the Louima and Amadou Diallo police brutality cases has changed the city’s response to such lawsuits. “As part of our risk management, we’ve been settling rather than taking these cases to the jury.” The testimony of officers at trial has also damaged their credibility, says Gonzalez. “In the cases I’ve had, police witnesses will say something that is blatantly untrue. And this reinforces what people now suspect — that the police lie.” Gonzalez recently represented the family of Ramon Gallardo, a 64-year-old man who was killed in a SWAT team raid on his home. The police brought his wife to the police station and “interrogated her in the basement for four hours after her husband was shot,” he says. In testifying in the Gallardo case, says Gonzalez, “the police chief said he treated Mrs. Gallardo the way he’d want his mother to be treated. This was obviously false.” The Fresno, Calif., jury was so angry, he says, that in 1999, it awarded the Gallardo family $12.6 million, the largest verdict ever for a Latino against the police. The case has since been settled for $6 million. Gallardo v. Reinnecius, Civ. F 97 6111 (E.D. Calif.). VIDEO EVIDENCE The rising use of videotape has had a significant effect in improving the odds for plaintiffs, says Peter Grenier of Washington, D.C.’s Bode & Grenier, who won that $98.1 million verdict against the D.C. police. “A lot more hard evidence is being created.” Grenier recently won a $5 million settlement from the city of Asbury Park, N.J., over the suicide death of a man in police custody. Michael Watkins, a 20-year-old recovering drug addict, had been placed in an Asbury Park jail cell with the police neither confiscating his shoelaces nor determining what medications he needed. A camera posted in the Asbury Park jail would record each cell for eight seconds then move onto the next cell. Through nine minutes of the videotape, the camera kept going back to Watkins as he was hanging himself with the laces, but none of the guards looked at the screen, Grenier reports. The guards eventually responded. They cut him down and resuscitated him. But this came too late. “He’s now 24 and in a persistent vegetative state,” the lawyer says. A suit against the city was to begin on June 11 but settled. The next wave, Cochran notes, will be in lawsuits and judgments against police departments “over shoddy, overzealous prosecutions.” The settlements in the Rampart case in Los Angeles, he says, will likely top $100 million. Plaintiffs’ attorneys are becoming more creative and pushing more esoteric claims. In Ohio, the family of a woman killed by her boyfriend sued the village of Blanchester and its police chief for failing to pursue a hunt for her body. The body was never found and the family charged a violation of their constitutional property rights in preserving “the remains of their loved one,” says plaintiffs’ attorney Alphonse A. Gerhardstein of Cincinnati’s Laufman & Gerhardstein. In February, a Cincinnati jury awarded $3.75 million. Culberson v. Doan, C-1-97-965 (S.D. Ohio). But while jurors are more receptive and plaintiffs’ attorneys more inventive, there are obstacles remaining in pursuing these cases. Depending on the jurisdiction or the claim, there can be sovereign immunity for the police department, qualified immunity for individual police officers or a daunting burden of proof. Federal case law may block recovery in certain actions, says Gerhardstein. A 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision on police responsibility in deaths or injuries caused by police chases, for example, raised the bar considerably, he notes. The verdicts aren’t always sustained on appeal. Grenier’s $98 million verdict was cut to just over $1 million. Smathers’ $4.1 million verdict was sliced to $1.6 million, and that $1 million broken wrist verdict was remitted by 90 percent. Where the case is filed depends on the facts, says Gonzalez. Excessive force cases are often better pursued in federal courts, as violations of the Fourth or 14th amendments, he believes. Gerhardstein notes that federal courts are generally more receptive to any actions against the police.

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