Fort Worth

Fort Worth paid more than $2.2 million in lawsuits against its police in 10 years

The city of Fort Worth has paid more than $2.2 million to settle lawsuits involving the police department since 2009, according to records obtained by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

These numbers involved 14 cases. One settlement was $2 million. Over the past 40 years, the city has paid about $5 million in settlements, among the lowest amounts in the country, according to city officials.

In total, 63 lawsuits have been filed against the department since 2009. Of those, 24 ended during depositions, with all but one being in favor of the city. Two lawsuits were tried in court and one ended in the city paying $65,149.92 to the plaintiff. Another 12 were settled out of court.

None of the officers whose lawsuits were settled was charged with a crime. The newspaper’s analysis also found that one officer — Adrian Tidwell — was named in two excessive force lawsuits that were eventually settled out of court for a total of $70,500. Tidwell is still employed by the department along with Officer Stephanie Phillips, who was involved in a $2 million lawsuit, a spokesman said Thursday.

The newspaper filed an open records request for the number of civil cases and settlements brought against the police department following the fatal shooting of Atatiana Jefferson, 28, in October.

Jefferson was inside her home when a neighbor called a non-emergency number to report that her front doors had been open for several hours. When police arrived, they parked their patrol vehicles out of view and quietly walked around the house without announcing themselves, according to video from their body cameras. When the officers made it to the backyard, Jefferson peered from inside a bedroom where she was with her 8-year-old nephew, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. That’s when ex-officer Aaron Dean fired one shot, killing her.

Dean has been charged with murder and awaits a grand jury hearing. Jefferson’s family has hired Dallas attorney Lee Merritt to represent them civilly. A federal civil rights lawsuit is likely forthcoming. Because of that, the newspaper wanted to see what other lawsuits have been brought against the department and how those were paid.

According to Laetitia Brown, a senior assistant city attorney, Fort Worth is self-insured, meaning that civil rights settlement payouts come out of the city’s general fund.

The city has spent $2,294,799.92 since 2009 to settle lawsuits.

Jay Chapa, the assistant city manager who oversees the police department, said Fort Worth has one of the lowest litigation costs in the country, which he says “is an indication of the level of training we provide our police officers and the quality of our Police Department policies.”

The $2 million settlement represents 40 percent of all the settlements in the past 40 years, Chapa said.

The 5 million paid over 40 years, although a large figure, is less than many large US cities have paid in the last 2 years,” he said.

According to records obtained by Governing magazine from the country’s largest cities, Fort Worth’s expenses rank at the bottom. The group looked at all settlements paid out by cities, including against departments other than police.

Fort Worth averages about $2.2 million a year in payouts and litigation, according to the data. The same data shows that cities of similar sizes pay much more: Jacksonville, $6.8 million; El Paso, $4.5 million; San Francisco, $59 million; and Seattle, $25 million.

Use of force, wrongful death lawsuits

Michael Jacobs Jr. was a 24-year-old father of two who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. His family called 911 for help in April 2013 when Jacobs became aggressive after he failed to take his medication.

Three officers arrived. One of them, identified in a lawsuit as Stephanie Phillips, shot Jacobs with a stun gun twice. The probes stuck in his neck and chest.

The first jolt of electricity lasted 49 seconds, with the officer holding the trigger for at least 44 seconds, according to the lawsuit. The second lasted five seconds. The lawsuit filed in 2009 alleged Phillips continued to shock Jacobs after he fell face-forward onto the ground.

Jacobs died after being turned over and handcuffed.

Phillips later said that she unknowingly “kept the Taser trigger engaged for an unknown amount of time,” the first time she applied the shock.

Jacob’s death was ruled a homicide, and the city settled a lawsuit filed by his family for the highest amount ever paid in a wrongful lawsuit in Fort Worth: $2 million.

Phillips was cleared of wrongdoing by the police department and a grand jury declined to indict her.

She was working for the department as of last year, according to a records request filed by the Star-Telegram in 2018 for names of officers who work in the city.

In October 2018, the city settled a lawsuit filed 10 years ago by Michael Malone in the amount of $52,500.

Malone and his attorneys alleged Tidwell allowed a police dog to attack Malone after a police chase, even though Malone had stopped his vehicle to surrender.

After the attack, according to the lawsuit, Tidwell and other officers mocked Malone and said they had waited their “whole career to see a dog pull someone out of a pick-up truck window,” and that “the dog was hungry.”

Tidwell was involved in a separate lawsuit that ended in an $18,000 settlement from an incident in 2007.

Alan Keppler was speeding when he noticed a patrol vehicle driven by Tidwell was behind him. When Tidwell turned his lights on, it spooked Keppler and he hit a curb. He brought the car to a stop in front of his home and parked on private property, the lawsuit says.

Keppler placed his hands out of his window and Tidwell grabbed the man, removed him from the vehicle and threw him face-first onto the ground, the lawsuit says. Keppler alleged Tidwell put his knee on his neck and choked him. Keppler suffered a broken arm, spinal fracture, facial abrasions and bruises.

Payout after removal from gay pride event

Not all of the lawsuits paid out by the city involved excessive force or death.

A discrimination case against former Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead was settled in favor of David Grisham for $65,148.92 in December 2016.

Grisham, described in the lawsuit as an “Evangelical, born-again Christian” and a resident of Fritch in the Texas Panhandle, was a leader of Repent Amarillo.

Grisham and Repent Amarillo have garnered headlines for their tactics, including Grisham’s failed attempt to burn the Quran during the 2010 anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, and he and his group’s videoing and protesting outside of strip clubs, gay bars and sexually oriented businesses.

Grisham went to the Tarrant County Gay Pride Week Association festival, which was being held at a park in downtown Fort Worth, in October 2014 to share his message.

The lawsuit argued that Grisham’s rights — along with the rights of his wife and daughter — were violated when two Fort Worth officers approached them as they handed out Gospel tracts.

The lawsuit said that Sgt. Rachel DeHoyos approached the family and told them to leave under the threat of arrest.

DeHoyos was initially named in the lawsuit but later removed.

Other lawsuits against the department

Other lawsuits settled against the police department for more than $10,000 show that five were settled in excessive force cases, two in wrongful arrest cases, two in discrimination cases and one in a wrongful death case.

A man received $120,000 after a video recorded at the downtown Fort Worth police station showed an officer slamming the man, who was handcuffed, into the wall of a jail cell before smashing his head onto the floor in 2008.

One man was a victim of a road rage incident when a police officer stopped his car, pulled out a gun and then shot his Taser at him, despite the man complying with the officer’s commands, according to a lawsuit. The charges against the man were dismissed in 2007 and he was awarded $49,900 in a 2012 settlement.

A man and his daughter were awarded $10,000 after they said a Fort Worth officer who was working off-duty as security at Harris Hospital assaulted the 17-year-old girl in 2008. According to the lawsuit, the officer grabbed the girl by her hair and threw her onto the ground and hit her as she tried to go into her grandmother’s hospital room. The lawsuit also says the officer punched the girl’s father in his chest. The officer involved in this case is no longer employed with the department.

In 2011, a civilian employee sued the department for violating her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. She was awarded $41,250 in lost wages.

Five other settlements totaled $17,000.

Pending lawsuits

Two lawsuits are pending against the police department, including one from the family of Phillip ‘Flip’ Vallejo, who was fatally shot outside a Mexican restaurant in downtown Fort Worth on July 31, 2015, in front of his wife, Brenda Vallejo.

She filed a suit against the police department, the city and the officer who shot Phillip Vallejo, Mark Ochsendorf, in 2016.

In the suit, Brenda Vallejo says Ochsendorf shot her husband multiple times in the back and again while he lay on the ground, bleeding. She said Ochsendorf and other officers on scene lied about what happened by saying that Phillip Vallejo had a gun and pointed it at Ochsendorf.

In 2015, Fort Worth Sgt. Steve Enright told the Star-Telegram that Phillip Vallejo was waving a handgun and “turned and faced the officer as if to confront him with the weapon.”

Ochsendorf was cleared by a grand jury in Phillip Vallejo’s death and, in a response to the lawsuit, the city denied wrongdoing on Ochsendorf’s or the city’s behalf.

A lawsuit filed against the city in the police shooting death of Jerry Waller is scheduled for a trial in 2020.

Waller died in 2014 after hew was shot multiple times by Officer R.A. Alex Hoeppner as the officer and partner Ben Hanlon searched for a possible suspect after they were dispatched to a burglary alarm call across the street.

Relatives have said Waller, suspecting a prowler was outside, grabbed his gun and went to investigate. Documents indicate that Waller was shot after he refused officers’ demands to drop the gun and pointed it at Hoeppner.

A grand jury declined to indict Hoeppner, who is still at the department.

The Star-Telegram found several other lawsuits against police that are still pending in federal court.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why we did this story

The newspaper filed an open records request for the number of civil cases and settlements brought against the police department following the fatal October shooting of Atatiana Jefferson, 28.

Jefferson was inside her home when a neighbor called a non-emergency number to report that her front doors had been open for several hours. When police arrived, they parked their patrol vehicles out of view and quietly walked around the house without announcing themselves, according to video from their body cameras. When the officers made it to the backyard, Jefferson peered from inside a bedroom where she was with her 8-year-old nephew, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. That’s when ex-officer Aaron Dean fired one shot, killing her.

Dean has been charged with murder and awaits a grand jury hearing. Jefferson’s family has hired Dallas attorney Lee Merritt to represent them civilly. A federal civil rights lawsuit has not yet been filed but is likely forthcoming.

Because of that, the newspaper wanted to see what other lawsuits have been brought against the department, which ones ended in a settlement and how those were paid.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.
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