Court rulings: Police leadership liable for failure to supervise, discipline problem personnel

The number of past similar complaints lodged against an officer must be seen as a warning to superiors that the officer requires special supervision and remedial training


Case 1: Rodriguez v. Cartagena

Rodriguez and his girlfriend were parked in his car late one night in San Juan Puerto Rico. [1] Suddenly Rodriguez observed four men approaching his car from behind, dressed in plain clothes and carrying drawn firearms. Rodriguez had no way to know these men were narcotics officers from the Police Department of Puerto Rico (PDPR).

The officers had arrived seconds earlier in an unmarked police vehicle and were led by PDPR Supervisor Soto. Rodriguez started his car and attempted to drive away. Without identifying themselves and without warning, the officers fired multiple shots at the departing car. Rodriguez was struck in the back and permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

A department’s internal affairs system must have a digital mechanism to identify officers with recurring similar complaints of misconduct. (Photo/PoliceOne)
A department’s internal affairs system must have a digital mechanism to identify officers with recurring similar complaints of misconduct. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Rodriguez sued Soto and the other on-scene officers in federal court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 [2] for excessive force in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. He also sued Alvarez, the Director of the PDPR Narcotics Division, and Cartagena, the Superintendent of the PDPR. Rodriguez alleged that the failure of the two senior leaders to properly supervise and discipline Soto were significant contributory factors to his catastrophic physical and emotional injuries.

After a 12-day trial, the jury returned a $4.5 million personal judgment against all defendants. [3] Moreover, punitive damages were assessed against Alvarez in the amount of $225,000, Cartagena, $150,000 and Soto, $200,000. The jury verdict was affirmed on appeal by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

With respect to Soto, the court observed that he was in charge at the scene of the shooting; he drove the unmarked car to the scene; he directed the other officers to approach with drawn guns; he failed to identify himself as an officer and failed to give any warning to Rodriguez; he fired a shotgun round at Rodriguez and at least tacitly authorized his subordinates to fire as well.

In affirming the verdict against the superior officers, the court carefully scrutinized the knowledge that Alvarez and Cartagena had or should have had regarding Soto’s disciplinary history. Moreover, the court was extremely critical of the way that Cartagena set up, managed and oversaw his internal affairs system. The court observed that Alvarez knew the following with respect to Soto:

  • Soto was the subject of 10 citizen abuse complaints while assigned to the Narcotics Division.
  • Soto was one of two officers that had the highest number of complaints against him.
  • Soto had a reputation for having a violent character for mistreating citizens.
  • Soto had been suspended for only five days for holding a medical doctor at gunpoint while officers under his command delivered a beating to the doctor.
  • Alvarez admitted that he was afraid that Soto could cause a riot that would threaten other officers’ lives.
  • Alvarez conducted several performance reviews for Soto and rated him above average in community relations and self-control.
  • During his most recent performance review, Alvarez commended Soto for his performance as a street supervisor.

With regard to Cartagena, the court observed:

  • He oversaw the entire PDPR, including the Narcotics Division.
  • He was in charge of the PDPR disciplinary system, including all final disciplinary decisions regarding officer misconduct.
  • He was aware that Soto was the subject of 13 citizen complaints in the four years preceding the Rodriguez shooting.
  • Cartagena personally signed 12 of 13 letters dismissing charges against Soto for alleged misconduct.
  • He personally reaffirmed Soto’s five-day suspension for holding a gun on a doctor while other officers beat him.
  • He refused to consider past misconduct complaints against officers when reviewing a new complaint for disposition.
  • The files and information brought to Cartagena for review of a new officer misconduct complaint never contained information regarding past complaints against the same officer.
  • Cartagena’s disciplinary system had no means of identifying problem officers who had many complaints filed against them. On this point, the court directly credited expert trial testimony to the effect that it is vitally important that an internal affairs system be able to identify officers with recurring complaints by tracking the number and nature of complaints lodged against them.

Case 2: Cox V. Murphy

A recent Federal District Court opinion [4] highlights the critical importance of identifying officers with past histories of using excessive force to prevent significant monetary court judgments against police leadership and municipalities.

Cox was suspected of a drug transaction and was approached by Detective Sergeant Paul Murphy and Officer Sean Flaherty from the Boston Police Department. An altercation ensued and Cox claimed that he was placed in a headlock, choked, thrown down and repeatedly punched. The punches left him bloodied and unable to see in one eye. He went to a local emergency room and was diagnosed with a right orbital fracture.

The court refused to dismiss Cox’s lawsuit against the City of Boston for failure to properly supervise and discipline police officers. The court observed that “Murphy has been the subject of at least ten citizen complaints of excessive force or assault, seven of which occurred before Cox’s arrest. At least four … involved allegations of choking and four involved allegations of punching.” [5] One of the alleged choking complaints involved a 14-year-old girl and another choking incident ended with a victim’s trip to the hospital. [6] Murphy had also been a defendant in five lawsuits involving claims of excessive force. [7] Three of them were settled without a judicial determination. [8] According to the court, “Murphy has never been disciplined for any of those incidents” and he testified “that he was never even interviewed or contacted by IAD in connection with several of the complaints.” [9]

The court ruled that “a reasonable jury could conclude that the City was on notice as to the possible propensity of Murphy, or Murphy and Flaherty together, to use excessive force during arrests. A reasonable jury could further conclude that the City did not take appropriate action in response, and indeed on some occasions did not even conduct a meaningful investigation. Accordingly, there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the City’s custom or practice of failing to … supervise, or discipline the officers demonstrated deliberate indifference to the plaintiff’s constitutional rights” and was the direct cause of the alleged violation. [10]

Lessons Learned

  • Law enforcement leaders must consider for disciplinary purposes past relevant complaints lodged against officers who are alleged to have committed new offenses.
  • The number of past similar complaints lodged against an officer, even if the officer was repeatedly exonerated, must be seen as a warning to superiors that the officer requires special supervision and remedial training. [11]
  • In order to prevent personal and municipal liability, a department’s internal affairs system must have a digital mechanism to identify officers with recurring similar complaints of misconduct.
  • Disciplinary decisions must be administered fairly and consistent with past decisions administered for similar offenses.
  • Discipline that is too lenient for the nature of the offense will be used against leaders and municipalities when the next officer misconduct complaint arises. For example, suspending a street supervisor for only five days for holding a gun on a doctor while he is beaten by other officers under the supervisor’s command is simply incredible.

References

1. Rodriguez v. Cartagena, 882 F.2d 553 (1st Cir. 1989).

2. The federal civil rights statute.

3. This was a joint judgment against all defendants, which means that each defendant could be liable for the entire amount if the others were unable to pay their share.

4. Civil No. 12-11817 U.S.D.C. (2/12/2016).

5. The court noted that Murphy was “exonerated” in three of these complaints and five more were determined “not sustained,” meaning that the evidence was insufficient to decide what happened.

6. Murphy was also separately accused of an indecent assault on a young girl and stealing from an arrestee.

7. One of the five lawsuits involved choking allegations.

8. One lawsuit ended with a favorable result for Murphy and one was still pending.

9. The court noted that Flaherty has been the subject of four other excessive force complaints and one lawsuit that settled. He was exonerated in three of them and one was found “not sustained.”

10. According to the website for Cox’s Attorney Jessica Hedges this lawsuit was settled for $125,000.

11. Another recent case that contains a glaring example of this problem is Douglas v. City of Springfield, C.A. No. 14-30210-MAP. U.S.D.C., D. MA (1/12/2017). Douglas alleged use of excessive force against several Springfield Massachusetts officers including defendants Bigda and Kent. The Federal Judge refused to dismiss the lawsuit and observed that Detective Bigda was the subject of 25 citizen complaints including 13 involving physical abuse. None were sustained by Internal Affairs. Sergeant Kent’s past disciplinary record was likewise of great interest to the court. Kent’s record disclosed 23 citizen complaints, including 16 involving allegations of physical force. Twenty-two of those complaints were determined by Internal Affairs to be not sustained. The lawsuit was eventually settled for $60,000.                                                                        

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