Thursday, April 10, 2003

Suit filed in deaf man’s killing

Published in the Current

The daughters of a man killed in a March 2001 encounter with Scarborough
police have filed a federal lawsuit alleging the officers, the department and the town violated their father’s civil rights and did not properly adapt their procedures to account for his disability.

The daughters’ attorney foresees a trial by year’s end, but the town’s attorney expects the suit will be dismissed by midsummer.

On Friday, attorneys will begin interviewing Scarborough Police Chief Robbie Moulton and officers Ivan Ramsdell and Robert Moore about their roles in the incident.

James Levier of Scarborough was deaf from early childhood and was 60 years old when he drove his van to the Shop ‘n Save parking lot in Scarborough March 16, 2001, to protest the sexual abuse of former students at the Baxter School for the Deaf, including himself.

He put a rifle on his shoulder and began marching back and forth in the parking lot, near his van, painted with protest slogans, and wearing a T-shirt with a slogan of protest on it.

After an hour-long standoff during which police had trouble communicating with Levier because he was deaf, he made the sign of the cross and pointed his rifle at police. Three Scarborough officers and a state trooper fired their weapons.

“It’s about as clear-cut a justification as I’ve seen for deadly force,” said Edward R. Benjamin Jr., the attorney representing the town of Scarborough and Moulton, Ramsdell and Moore. He will file a motion for summary judgment. A decision could be made by early July, he said.

The incident was complicated by the fact that Levier had filed a lawsuit earlier in the year against the Scarborough Police Department alleging civil rights violations because they did not provide an interpreter when they arrested him on an out-of-town warrant for assault.

The department’s only officer fluent in sign language was unable to participate in the armed standoff because of the lawsuit. Police were eventually able to locate another interpreter and were in the process of deciding how to safely arrange communications when Levier pointed his rifle at officers and they fired, killing Levier.

The new lawsuit, brought by Levier’s daughters Susan Vincent and Christina Cookson, alleges that police did not do enough to communicate with Levier before shooting him and did not try to use non-lethal force before using regular weapons with regular ammunition.

All the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing by the state attorney general’s office, which investigates all use of deadly force by law enforcement officers.

The suit also says that by not providing him with an interpreter, police were in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

Benjamin said that police are obliged to provide an interpreter, “once we’ve taken away the immediate danger.” Further, providing an interpreter for a deaf person is different from providing one for someone who speaks another language. “A deaf guy with a gun is still a guy with a gun and he has to be treated like that,” Benjamin said.

While a language interpreter could be positioned behind a car, say, with a bullhorn, a sign interpreter must be seen to communicate, Benjamin said. That’s dangerous when there is a gun involved.

The suit also alleges police used too much force too soon. “Alternatives such as police dogs, bean-bag rounds and other non-lethal use of force tactics and devices although available and feasible, were not used,” the suit says.

Benjamin said that’s disingenuous. “(Police) have the right to use deadly force when confronted with deadly force,” he said. “It was a suicide by cop case. (Levier) went out to provoke” police into shooting, he said. “Now these guys have to live the rest of their lives with that event.”

Benjamin said police officers have limited immunity from prosecution under federal law, if they “acted reasonably in the totality of the circumstances.”

Portland attorney Dan Lilley, who filed the suit on behalf of Levier’s daughters, said he is studying 30 to 40 audio and videotapes of the event, including radio transmissions from police officers and dispatchers.

He is asking the court for more time to continue his investigation, including questioning the officers involved and reviewing the records of the attorney general’s investigation.

“We have a lot more questions than we have answers,” Lilley said. One of the issues may be police confusion about the person they were dealing with. One call from dispatchers indicated to Lilley that police may have thought they were responding to an armed robber, who had taken a hostage.

“The police thought they had themselves a real criminal on their hands,” as opposed to a person conducting a public protest, Lilley said.

The suit does not request a particular amount of money, and Lilley said he has not yet determined what might be appropriate to ask for. He said he will base that decision on the results of his investigation, which is still in progress.

If the investigation wraps up by the end of June, which he expects it will, the case could go to trial before the end of the year, Lilley said. He said settling out of court was possible, but not probable.