Chris Rock guest appearance in training didn’t amuse the court
This case is an urgent reminder for agencies to scrutinize their use of force policies, training materials and review procedures
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Wright v. City of Euclid, 2020 WL 3278698 (6th Cir. 2020)
This case “involves a Chris Rock video and a cartoon, but it is no laughing matter.”
Lamar Wright, a black man, pulled his car into a friend’s driveway, lowered his window and conversed with his friend. Wright didn’t get out of his car and his friend didn’t approach the car.
Officers in plainclothes and an unmarked car watched this brief conversation and decided to stop Wright to investigate what they thought might have been a drug transaction.
When Wright pulled over to answer a text message, the officers approached him with guns drawn. Seeing a man with a gun approach on his right side, Wright thought he was about to be robbed, dropped his phone and threw the car in reverse. As he looked to his left side, he saw another man with a gun, but also noticed a hanging badge. Wright immediately stopped and raised his hands.
The officers holstered their guns. Wright turned off the ignition and raised his hands again. One officer pulled open the driver's side door and demanded that Wright get out. He reached into the car and tried to handcuff Wright while he was still seated. Wright cried out in pain and told the officer he was hurting him, as Wright had recently had surgery and had a colostomy bag stapled to his skin.
One officer sprayed pepper spray into Wright’s face as the other officer simultaneously fired a TASER into Wright’s abdomen. As Wright struggled to get out of the car, the officers forced him to the ground on his stomach. Wright told the officers that he had a “shit bag” on his body. At this point, the officers could see the bag and could see that Wright was bleeding from the torn staples.
The officers called for an ambulance. As they waited for medical assistance, one of the officers said he was afraid Wright would shoot him. The officers agreed that Wright did not have a gun and they had no basis to arrest him until he resisted their efforts to handcuff him. Wright was arrested for resisting the officers. A doctor treated Wright’s injuries and refused to order a CT scan to search for drugs.
Wright was booked into jail for failure to use his turn signal, obstructing the officers and trespassing. He was held for several hours and taken to a county facility for a full body scan to search for drugs. No drugs were found. All charges were dismissed by prosecutors.
Wright sued the officers and the city for excessive force, failure to intervene, false arrest, malicious prosecution and municipal liability. The trial court granted qualified immunity to the officers and the city. The court of appeals reversed the lower court on most of the claims.
The appellate court held that a reasonable jury could find that Wright did not actively resist the officers. A police practices expert testified that the officer’s TASER use on Wright violated the department’s own policy, as well as the IACP Model Policy on Electronic Control Weapons and TASER’s training materials. The law is clearly established that an officer may not deploy a TASER merely for failure to follow orders when the officer has no reasonable fear for his safety and when a subject is not under arrest. The court also held a jury should decide whether it was reasonable for the officers to approach Wright with guns drawn.
The court of appeals upheld the grant of qualified immunity on the claim that both officers failed to intervene with the other’s use of force. The court reasoned the pepper spray and the TASER were deployed nearly simultaneously. Thus, neither officer had time to perceive the force used by the other before the force was applied. Accordingly, neither could assess whether there was a need to intervene.
As the appellate court considered whether the city should be liable for the officers’ use of force, the court considered the Chris Rock video, “How not to get your ass kicked by the police” and a cartoon of an officer beating a man with a nightstick, captioned “protecting and serving the poop out of you.” The cartoon appears in an official defensive tactics training course prepared by the department’s use of force instructor (who also reviewed and approved the force applied to Wright). The video was included as part of the department training and features scenes of police officers beating African-American suspects, alongside commentary from Chris Rock about Rodney King being beaten by the LAPD. The court held that this evidence could lead a reasonable jury to find the “city’s custom surrounding use of force is so settled so as to have the force of law and that it was the moving force behind violations of Wright’s constitutional rights.” The court also held that the jury could find the city had failed to train and supervise the officers who applied force to Wright.
This is only a brief summary of a very lengthy and detailed decision. The court began its decision with: “This case raises a gravely important issue – police use of force – that has dominated the nation’s attention in recent weeks.” And it concluded with: “It is very troubling that the City of Euclid’s law-enforcement training included jokes about Rodney King – who was tased and beaten in one of the most infamous police encounters in history – and a cartoon with a message that twists the mission of police.”
Remember that appellate courts reviewing a grant of qualified immunity to an officer are required to consider the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. It is likely the officers’ views, reasons and actions are not completely laid out in the court’s decision. Even so, this case is a sharp and urgent reminder for agencies to scrutinize their policies, training (including training material) and use of force review procedures.