Excessive force verdict against Mpls police breaks pattern of settlementsby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — Earlier this week, a jury awarded the family of an unarmed man killed by two Minneapolis police officers nearly $1.8 million. The jury found the officers liable for excessive force when they shot and killed Dominic Felder in 2006.
The trial, verdict and the amount of the award are unusual for a number of reasons.
One reason is that the city usually settles officer misconduct lawsuits out of court. Data from the city attorney's office shows that between 2003 and the fall of 2009, the city settled 84 percent of police conduct lawsuits.
The data also shows that the city won all 57 of the officer conduct suits it fought in court. The Felder verdict ended the city's seven-year-long winning streak.
When asked why the city didn't settle out of court, city attorney Susan Segal has said the city believed it had a strong case.
The city's case centered on the testimony of officers Jason King and Lawrence Loonsfoot. They said they shot Felder seven times after Felder grabbed officer King's gun during a struggle.
During the trial, expert witnesses for both sides testified that officers are justified in using deadly force if they perceive a reasonable threat. And the witnesses agreed that sometimes officers have to make split-second, life-or-death decisions.
Some lawyers say that can make jurors more sympathetic to police officers.
"It is certainly not the norm that you get a jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff in an excessive force case here in Minnesota," said attorney Stephen Smith, who has represented clients who have sued Minneapolis police officers. Last year, Smith settled a case with the city for $100,000.
Smith was not in the courtroom for the Felder trial, but he says the verdict shows that the jury was paying close attention to the evidence that contradicted the officers' story. Smith says jurors punctuated their decision by awarding Felder's family slightly more than $1 million for their loss, and awarded punitive damages of $800,000.
"That's a very significant message being sent to the Minneapolis police department that these officers acted unconstitutionally," said Smith.
As it stands, the award plus attorneys' fees will amount to one of the largest city payouts for an officer conduct lawsuit.
Attorney Gregg Corwin was also not present during the trial, but he has represented Minneapolis police officers who have been sued for misconduct. He has a little different take.
Since the Felder case was a civil suit, the plaintiffs only had to prove a preponderance of evidence, not guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
"It's a subjective standard," said Corwin. "A jury has to decide a subjective issue -- whether they acted reasonably. And one of the problems is, it's a review after the fact."
Corwin says the after-the-fact review allows attorneys and juries to use hindsight to second guess an officer's decisions. Corwin warns that the outcome of the trial could affect the morale of other police officers.
"You get these kind of verdicts, and it's a signal to the police officer that 'Maybe I shouldn't be so aggressive, or maybe I shouldn't be as active, because look what happens,'" said Corwin.
A police spokesperson says Chief Tim Dolan will not comment on the verdict. But attorney Corwin says it's likely that officers King and Loonsfoot won't face any disciplinary action.
They have already been cleared of criminal charges by a grand jury, and an internal affairs investigation determined that the officers were justified in their use of force.
The Minneapolis city attorney's office is considering an appeal.
- All Things Considered, 10/27/2010, 5:24 p.m.