PD in small Penn. city in crisis over brutality lawsuits
By MICHAEL RUBINKAM
EASTON, Pa.- Until 2001, Jack Cuvo Jr. was best known around town as the athlete who won two NCAA wrestling championships and a gold medal at the Pan-American Games. Now people see him as the guy who got $2.5 million to settle claims that he was beaten, kicked and choked into semiconsciousness by Easton police officers.
John Karoly Jr., the personal injury lawyer behind much of the legal action, says some members of the 62-officer department are "proud of their well-deserved title as being one of the most abusive police forces in the country."
Even as police and city officials scoff at Karoly's claim, the continuing threat of lawsuits has forced them to take action.
In recent weeks, Mayor Phil Mitman has disbanded the SWAT team and hired Daniel Spang, a retired police chief and state police major, to devise policies on the use of force, high-speed police chases and firearms handling.
The goal is to win accreditation from the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, which concluded in one report that the Easton department is "an agency in crisis."
The department also will begin tracking complaints about officers with a computer system similar to one the Los Angeles Police Department began using in July.
Even without the abuse allegations, this is a troubled police force.
A grand jury is investigating the apparent accidental shooting death of a SWAT officer inside police headquarters in March. And since the beginning of July, three independent reports, all commissioned by the city, have pointed to a sloppily run department that lacks even basic policies and procedures.
While acknowledging the problems, Mitman defends officers against allegations that they regularly use excessive force in the city of about 26,000.
"These officers are protecting and serving Easton" while dealing with a "litigious society mentality that the bad guys are right," he said. If abuse is taking place, Mitman said, "I don't know about it."
Over the last three years, the city and its insurance company have agreed to pay out more than $5 million to settle five civil rights lawsuits against the police. All of the incidents took place before Mitman took office. Three other suits are pending and at least three more are being prepared.
Cuvo's case has gotten the most attention, because he was a local celebrity before his 2001 beating and because city officials said the settlement, announced in March, will likely require a 19-percent tax increase.
Some residents denounce Cuvo and his lawyer as money-grubbers.
"These officers are making split-second life-or-death decisions, and it's really easy to second-guess a decision from the comfort of your law office," said Eric Smith, a lawyer for the police union, who believes the city should have fought Karoly's lawsuits in court instead of settling.
But Karoly said he gets complaints of alleged abuse almost every day. "The culture in this department is about as deep-rooted as you can get," he said.
Cuvo, who runs a popular wrestling school, said officers wrongly accused him of paint-balling the house of an officer who had given him a traffic citation. Police began tailing him and the officer whose house was vandalized threatened Cuvo, according to his lawsuit.
On Oct. 9, 2001, Cuvo was pulled from his car, beaten with metal flashlights, kicked, dragged, choked and twice sprayed with Mace, according to his lawsuit. Cuvo said he suffered a torn retina and permanent brain damage and continues to suffer from seizures.
"You can change your handbook all you want, but they are not punishing these guys for their behavior," Cuvo said. "If you want to get rid of the cancer, you don't cut out part of it, you gotta get it all."
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