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Civil-rights lawsuits against police spiked in 2013

Watchdogs say the police department's poor track record in disciplining bad cops drives the increase; city says spike is anomaly.

John Snowden talks to his son, Kahlif, on May 5, 2014. Kahlif Snowden was beaten and Tasered by Philadelphia police so much that his heart stopped, causing brain damage. He survived but has lived in a nursing home. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
John Snowden talks to his son, Kahlif, on May 5, 2014. Kahlif Snowden was beaten and Tasered by Philadelphia police so much that his heart stopped, causing brain damage. He survived but has lived in a nursing home. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)Read more

ON A WARM night in Overbrook, Askia Sabur spotted his cousin outside a Chinese takeout and pedaled his bicycle over to chat.

Within minutes, Sabur lay bleeding and barely conscious on the sidewalk, as a crowd of cops - several with long histories of brutality complaints - beat him, opening gashes on his head that would require six staples to close.

In West Philadelphia, Stephen Moore was watching TV alone in his bedroom when his home-security system announced his front door was open.

Moore went to investigate, only to be pumped full of lead by a cop who started firing after entering the house without saying a word.

And in Kensington, police who tried to arrest Kahlif Snowden over a suspected drug sale ended up violating policy by Tasing him in the neck three times until he fell unconscious. He was left in a persistent vegetative state.

Sabur, Moore and Snowden were among 128 plaintiffs who received nearly $14 million in settlements from the city last year from civil-rights lawsuits filed against police.

That marked a huge jump from the $8.3 million paid out for such suits in 2012, and an even bigger increase from the $4.2 million paid five years earlier. Those figures don't include the millions paid annually to settle lawsuits from police-involved car accidents or labor and employment claims.

For a city that doesn't have enough money to fund its struggling schools or keep up with its crumbling infrastructure, the increase in lawsuit payouts is troubling. And, some say, unsurprising.

They argue that the City Solicitor's Office often heads into court at a competitive disadvantage, because the Police Department has a questionable track record of disciplining troublesome cops. A Daily News review of dozens of high-dollar settlements paid in recent years shows that most involve officers who flout police policies or have racked up piles of citizen complaints of misconduct.

Settling out of court might be less risky - and ultimately cheaper - than gambling on a case in which a judge or jury outraged by systemic police problems might award the plaintiff a jackpot, watchdogs say.

"Based on my experience, the Police Department fails to follow a strict and non-negotiable discipline process," said attorney Robert Levant, who won a $2.5 million settlement from the city for Moore.

"The rank and file have no expectation that their behavior is ever going to be subject to any real, meaningful review," he said. "That becomes admissible evidence that shows the city is not properly supervising and disciplining officers."

One city official brushed off such conclusions, saying four seven-figure settlements skewed last year's data. Take them out, said Craig M. Straw, chief deputy city solicitor of the Law Department's civil-rights unit, and the settlements have remained relatively flat since 2009.

"Philadelphia has about 6,600 police officers, and there are about 250,000 interactions between police officers and civilians every year," Straw said. "Last year, about 300 [civil-rights] lawsuits were filed against police. If you look at that percentagewise, it's a very good, very small number."

Further, when city lawyers do take a case to court, they usually win, Straw added. Of 38 police-involved civil-rights lawsuits tried this year and last, the city won 33 of them. Payouts in the five losses totaled $105,500, Straw said.

Straw said lawyers weigh a variety of facts before deciding whether to settle, including everything from who the plaintiff is and how his injury affected him to the circumstances of the incident in question.

Numbers aside, police bigwigs say lawsuits offer lessons that can improve the department.

Past cases that ended in settlements led to policy changes on issues ranging from pursuits and prisoner transports to handcuffing and choke holds, said Capt. Francis Healy, special adviser to Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

"The dollar value was not as important to the police commissioner and me," Healy said. "My direct concern is the actions of the police officers. We're willing to shake up the whole house here to try to do things better."

Most of 2013's priciest payouts involved brutality claims and police shootings, records show.

Waiting for an apology

Kahlif Snowden lies in bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. His hands curl into his chest, and his feet turn inward, the muscles atrophied from disuse. He has a cold, his breathing raspy and labored.

John Snowden reaches out to caress his son's face. Kahlif cringes, the only reaction he's shown in hours.

"He does that - flinches like that - if you don't warn him you're going to touch him. I think it's because that's the last experience he [consciously] had," the elder Snowden said, before adding: "Kahlif? Leafy? It's just Dad. I'm going to touch you now."

More than three years have passed since Kahlif Snowden had the run-in with Philadelphia police that landed him in the Montgomery County nursing home where he now lives in a persistent vegetative state.

On a freezing February 2011 night in Kensington, a half-dozen police officers wrestled with Kahlif at Indiana Avenue and Gransback Street until the 25-year-old lay unbreathing on the ground.

Later, the cops would tell investigators and lawyers that they'd targeted him after seeing a suspected drug sale. Faced with a resisting suspect, the cops piled on and beat him - with one Tasing his neck three times in three minutes until he fell unconscious and was handcuffed.

When the cops realized he wasn't breathing, they took him to the hospital, where doctors pulled drug packets from his throat, according to police reports.

By then, his brain had been irreparably damaged. He has never regained consciousness.

Snowden acknowledges his son had a troubled past that included drug dealing.

But even if Kahlif had been sitting on a mountain of marijuana, police had no right to act as they did, John Snowden said.

"They were judge, jury and executioner out on that street," he said.

One officer involved did violate protocol in a key area - the department forbids using a stun gun on sensitive areas, including the neck, head or genitals. It also counsels against multiple, frequent jolts, which increase the risk of injury or death.

Six months later, John Snowden sued on his son's behalf. Last year, he agreed to settle for $2 million, which will fund his son's care.

Although his lawsuit ended, John Snowden still seethes. That's because the officers were never disciplined for how they hurt his son.

"I want to see them convicted. I want to see them lose their pensions. I want to see them punished for what they did," he said. "They just walk free. But look at him [gesturing to his son]. This is what I have to come to [see] every day."

He also wouldn't mind an apology.

"When that lieutenant [Jonathan Josey, later acquitted of charges] smacked that Hispanic woman [at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in 2012], oh, Mayor Nutter apologized then. I didn't get a call of apology. I'm still waiting to hear from the mayor and the police commissioner. They know these cops were wrong, and they know they'd never do this in a neighborhood like the Northeast."

The case did prompt the department to try to craft a policy on what officers should do when a suspect swallows evidence.

"This is an everyday occurrence for us," Healy said. "We've had officers reach in [the suspect's mouth] and get bit, or people who try to swallow drugs and choke. I'm researching best practices in other cities and hope to have something soon."

Closer review needed

Stephen Moore didn't have a warrant out for his arrest. Had no stash of guns or drugs, either.

But he did have a simmering feud with Hakim and Angela Muhammad, the parents of his late wife, Halimah Ramadan.

The Muhammads allegedly wanted the property on Christian Street near 60th that Moore called home. So on Nov. 9, 2011, they dialed 9-1-1 and reported a burglary in progress there.

Moore, a 37-year-old electrician, was in his second-floor bedroom, watching TV. He had no idea that police radios across West Philly's 18th District were buzzing about the break-in - or that the first cop to respond would be Officer Larry Shields.

Shields, a Philly cop since 1993, was on the street that day even though he'd been involved in a controversial off-duty shooting earlier that year.

He hadn't been cleared of wrongdoing in that case by the District Attorney's Office or been reviewed by the police Firearm Discharge Review Board.

When Shields showed up at Moore's house, he didn't wait for backup. He marched inside. He didn't yell "Police!" or tell anyone to come out with their hands up.

Moore heard his home-security system chirp, alerting him that the front door was open. He went downstairs, unarmed - and got drilled in the arm and chest with two slugs from Shields, who opened fire without warning.

Moore lost 30 to 40 percent of his blood by the time cops took him to the hospital, records show. Bullet fragments shattered his forearm and ripped into his lungs.

Amazingly, Moore survived. He left the city and declined to be interviewed for this story.

Shields was put on desk duty - again.

Today, Shields still works in the 18th District, said Officer Tanya Little, a police spokeswoman. He faced a disciplinary hearing before the Police Board of Inquiry over Moore's shooting, but Little said she didn't know the result.

Levant, Moore's attorney, said his client's case was a textbook example of how steeply lax police discipline costs the city in the long run.

"That $2.5 million settlement is entirely the responsibility of the department," he said. "Shields hadn't even been cleared of the prior shooting, but he was out on the street, responding to a call."

Levant said that left the City Solicitor's Office in an "unenviable position" in Moore's case.

"In what universe could they put an expert on the stand who could say that it was OK for Shields to be on the street if he hadn't been in front of a review board for another shooting?"

After a reporter wrote last spring that police-involved shootings spiked in 2012, Ramsey asked the Justice Department to review cases when officers shoot at civilians. That review remains underway.

But Ramsey is hamstrung by the city's labor rules, Levant said. Even when the top cop cracks down on a wayward officer, the discipline often gets overturned through arbitration.

"As a result of the strength of the union, it's very difficult to discipline a cop in any real, meaningful way," he said.

Not a criminal

On the September 2010 day that Askia Sabur tangled with two cops outside a Chinese takeout in West Philadelphia, he knew nothing of their problematic pasts.

Trying to clear the corner, the cops ordered Sabur and his cousin Shawn Merritt to move. The men refused because they were waiting for Merritt's fiancee and daughter, who were inside getting food.

The next thing Sabur knew, he was on the bottom of a blur of kicking, punching and screaming cops. After they fractured his arm, gave him a concussion and split his head open, they charged him with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and related offenses.

In court, Officers Donyule Williams and Jimmy Leocal claimed Sabur punched and bit them, and grabbed for one's pistol.

But a bystander recorded the melee in a video that went viral - and proved the police version of events wrong. The video showed Leocal beating Sabur with his baton, pointing his gun when onlookers demanded he stop and grabbing the cellphones of bystanders who recorded his actions.

The officers also offered multiple conflicting reasons for why they accosted Sabur and Merritt.

Such skirmishes weren't new to either officer.

Internal Affairs records show that Williams has received 10 citizen complaints (six for physical and/or verbal abuse) in his 12 years on the job. Leocal, a 14-year veteran, has seven (six for physical and/or verbal abuse).

None was sustained.

Yet the partners cost the city plenty in lawsuit payouts. Sabur received an $850,000 settlement from the city last year. And three other lawsuits filed against the duo cost the city a combined $254,000, records show.

Sabur, now 32, harbors no grudge against his tormentors. He knows they have a tough job. But he thinks the city doesn't do enough to ease their burden.

"Police officers need mental-health evaluations - like multiple times throughout the year," said Sabur, an artist. "Our Police Department, they see so much nonsense on a daily basis. I know it just eats them up - little kids being shot, women being abused, drug addicts. It has to drive officers crazy."

It also prompts many to form prejudices that make them assume the worst in everyone they encounter, Sabur added.

"A lot of officers, they need compassion. Everybody's not a criminal. Everybody don't have guns on them," Sabur said. "You go to Chestnut Hill, people stand out in front of stores all the time. But you come to my area in West Philly or Germantown or West Oak Lane, it's a problem for police when we're out on the corners? Everybody's not selling drugs.

"It's a war out here," he added. "But the only way to end this war is to change our hearts. If the cops would just chill out, we'd have money for the school district."