Thursday, December 1, 2005

S.P. man files million-dollar claim against city

Published in the Current

SOUTH PORTLAND (Dec 1, 2005): A South Portland man has filed a notice that he may sue the city of South Portland for $1 million in compensation for what he says was excessive force used by three police officers during an arrest July 20.

Stephen E. Parker has claimed that as a result of the incident his left shoulder, arm and hand were injured, “including permanent nerve damage,” that he suffered “emotional distress” and that his constitutional rights were violated.

The officers allegedly involved were Officer Kevin Gerrish, who Parker claims initially stopped Parker’s vehicle, and two officers Parker’s claim said responded as “backup,” Officer Jeffrey Caldwell and Lt. Todd Bernard, who was a sergeant at the time. Parker’s claim also names Police Chief Edward Googins and claims wrongdoing also on the part of the South Portland Police Department and the city of South Portland.

Parker’s claim alleges he was shot by a taser gun, sometimes also called a “stun gun,” which fires small electrodes at a person and then discharges an electric shock, temporarily disabling the person.

Parker’s filing claims he “was not dangerous or physically threatening to anyone,” and goes on to say that after Parker was shot with the taser, “officers brought him to the ground and continued their assault on him.”

The claim is not a lawsuit, but notifies the city that he may file suit in the future. City attorney Mary Kahl said many people who file notices of claim do not end up filing lawsuits. The notice of claim gives the city time to investigate and determine what really happened, she said. If there is no out-of-court settlement and no lawsuit, the allegations contained in the notice of claim simply expire, she said.

Parker, 39, of 4 Spurwink Ave. was arrested on charges of operating under the influence and refusing to submit to arrest or detention on Sawyer Street at 8:10 p.m. July 20, according to police records.

Parker was out of state and could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Benjamin Gideon of Lewiston, did not return multiple messages seeking comment. Gerrish did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Googins said the department has launched an internal investigation into the incident, as it does in response to all notices of claim or other complaints. The investigation began earlier this month, when the notice arrived, because Parker had made no previous complaint about the incident, Googins said.

“I can’t respond to his allegation” because of the ongoing internal investigation, Googins said.

Kahl said the claim has been handed off to the city’s insurer, the Maine Municipal Association, where a spokeswoman declined to discuss the claim, or even confirm that it existed.

Kahl said the city investigation is “unlikely” to find fault with any of the officers. If the city did, it could choose to negotiate a settlement with Parker, which would forestall an actual lawsuit. Kahl said in the 15 years she has been the city’s attorney, the city only chose to settle in advance one claim, in which a person slipped and fell on ice.

“Because of the nature of what (police) do,” she said, “it’s not unusual for any municipal police department to periodically have a claim filed.”

“There have been few complaints” of excessive force against the city’s police, and those that have been filed are usually resolved in favor of the police, Kahl said.

In 2003, a federal jury rejected a claim by a North Waterboro woman that South Portland Police Officer James Fahey had used unnecessary force against her during an arrest in May 2002.

The woman, Robyn Toler, claimed that without provocation Fahey threw her to the ground and pushed her head against a police car while she was handcuffed. Fahey said he threw her to the ground to prevent her from spitting in his face. He denied pushing her head against a car.

And in 1992, a federal judge found that South Portland Police Officer Andrew Kennedy had not used excessive force during an arrest on Broadway in February 1991.