Sep 2 2011

Worcester pays out $80,000 in lawsuit against officer with history of violence

Dr. Q

According to the Telegram & Gazette, the City of Worcester recently settled a federal police brutality lawsuit, paying out $80,000 to Katie Warren who was reportedly beaten and falsely arrested by two Worcester police officers in 2006.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed in 2009, Warren went to a convenience store on September 4, 2006 to use an ATM. While she was outside the store talking with a friend, Worcester police officers Mark A. Rojas and Kellen E. Smith drove up to a gas pump, exited their vehicle, and approached her.

“Well, why don’t you smile?” one of the officers allegedly asked Warren after eying her.

The encounter quickly turned into an argument. One of the officers told Warren’s friend “You should tell your little girlfriend to shut her mouth.”

Warren began walking away from the officers, saying “You don’t scare me” when Officer Smith grabbed her and twisted her arms behind her back. While she was subdued by Smith, Officer Rojas grabbed her hair and slammed her head into one of the convenience store’s windows. The officers then threw Warren to the ground and arrested her while subjecting her to verbal abuse.

Warren was charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and two counts of threatening to commit a crime, but all the charges were dismissed in May, 2007.

In addition to placing blame on the two police officers, Warren’s lawsuit singles out current Worcester Police Chief Gary Gemme, claiming that that Officer Rojas’s “violent tendencies were repeatedly tolerated by supervisors, and even when supervisors such as Chief Gemme believed Rojas had acted inappropriately, he was not disciplined.”

Former Worcester Police Officer Mark A. Rojas

Officer Mark Rojas has a colorful history, to say the least. As Warren’s lawsuit pointed out, Rojas, who joined the Worcester Police Department in 1996, was the subject of at least 15 misconduct investigations by the department before he left last year. A number of Rojas’s disturbing activities made headlines.

In 2008, Rojas shot and killed a pet dog with a semi-automatic pistol while responding to a domestic disturbance. Rojas, who arrived to help remove a drunk uncle from a family’s home, insisted that the dog caused him to fear for his life and the owners refused to control it. But the family members said that Rojas shot the animal without warning.

After publishing an article about Rojas killing the dog, the Telegram & Gazette began to receive letters from people who said they had been abused by Rojas, so the paper decided to make a public records request to have Rojas’s internal affairs file released.

The paper made its request in April, 2008. The police department charged the paper $1,500 which it quickly accepted, but it did not release the more than 1,500 pages of documents until December. When the documents were released, they were heavily redacted to the point that “776 pages contained little or no information,” according to the Telegram & Gazette. In one case, the police had literally blacked out an entire page.

In one complaint included in the file, Rojas was accused of punching and beating a handcuffed man with a flashlight in the back of a police wagon. In that incident, Rojas claimed that the man received his injuries after he tripped and fell. Meanwhile, a fellow officer wrote that the man’s injuries were sustained when he “began to bang his head and face against the interior walls of the wagon.”

Other files included complaints about an alleged beating, an illegal search of a car with attempt to “plant something” on the driver, an unlawful traffic stop that lead to a driver being frisked, and the false arrest of an activist who was passing out flyers.

To get access to the remaining 700+ pages of Rojas’s internal affairs file, the Telegram & Gazette was forced to sue the police department. Though these documents are public records, Worcester bureaucrats spent taxpayer money to defend the city against the lawsuit and keep them secret. A judge ultimately ruled that their reasons for withholding the information to be “clearly without merit.” It took more than two years from the initial public records request before the Telegram & Gazette was finally able to get copies of the remaining pages.

Those pages contained some of the most disturbing information about Officer Rojas.

One investigation looked into allegations made by one of Rojas’s ex-girlfriends who accused Rojas of threatening to kill her and her new boyfriend. The woman wrote in her complaint that Rojas told her, “I will make sure that you wish you were dead when I finish with you, and there is nothing you can do to protect yourself. Remember I’m a cop. There is nowhere you can hide. I will make your every day a living hell.”

During the investigation, Rojas was put on desk duty and forced to turn his firearms in to the police department.

Included in the file for the investigation was a stack of handwritten poems Rojas had sent to the ex-girlfriend. One of the poems opened with the following verse:

I’ll kill you…

I’ve done so in my dreams.

I’ve killed you…

I watched you die…

And heard your screams.

In a memo to the police chief, a senior internal affairs investigator wrote that he and a second investigator agreed “that the complaint is credible, and that Rojas represents a genuine threat to the safety” of his ex-girlfriend. However, the department ultimately ruled the complaint as “not sustained,” a term meaning there wasn’t enough evidence to determine whether the complaint was true or false. They did, however, sustain an allegation that Rojas unlawfully accessed a criminal database to get personal information about one of the people he was harassing.

Rojas’s weapons were returned to him and he was allowed back on duty.

Another investigation found that Rojas failed to turn a report over to internal affairs on time and lied to investigators during a police brutality investigation. In the brutality case, off-duty officer Matthew Coakley reportedly hit a handcuffed individual in the side of the head while Rojas, who was working a security detail at a nightclub, stood by. Rojas denied seeing Coakley hit the man or speaking to nightclub staff members after the altercation, but staffers told investigators that they had spoken to Rojas.

Another complaint alleged that Rojas angrily confronted a former girlfriend’s husband whom he was in a child custody dispute with. Rojas entered the husband’s car without his permission and choked him when he tried to call 911 for help. As with the other complaint, Rojas was found to have unlawfully accessed a criminal database to get information about the people he was harassing. In this case, the department sustained allegations of assault and battery, conduct unbecoming a police officer, untruthfulness, and illegally conducting a criminal records check.

In fact, Rojas was convicted of assault and battery over this incident by a judge, but the judge only sentenced him to probation and anger management classes. Rojas’s attorney later convinced the judge to throw out the conviction and give Rojas a new trial. The trial was continued without finding.

After the assault and battery incident, the police department stripped Rojas of his license to carry firearms and finally moved to fire him, but before he could be fired, Rojas was allowed to retire on a disability claim during a secret hearing with the Worcester Retirement Board. To this day, he continues to bleed taxpayers for more than $50,00 a year.

Rojas’s sordid history makes Worcester’s recent settlement with Katie Warren beyond infuriating. Rojas should not have been a cop when he and Officer Smith arrested Warren, period. No one who sends death threats to ex-girlfriends or lies during police brutality investigations has any business being a cop and certainly doesn’t deserve to be making tens of thousands of dollars on a disability claim at taxpayer expense either. The fact that Rojas was allowed to work for the Worcester Police Department for as long as he did shows that the department has a serious problem holding its officers accountable. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that Worcester has paid out more than a million dollars in police brutality lawsuits since 1999.

Worcester also appears to have serious transparency problems. Not only did the City attempt to hide misconduct-related records, but it frequently attaches gag orders to its legal settlements to prevent police brutality victims from speaking with the media. This is a commonly used tactic in brutality lawsuits because it allows city governments to deny wrongdoing while simultaneously preventing the other side of the story from being widely publicized. The recent settlement with Katie Warren included a gag order, but it is not the first time the City has resorted to the secrecy tactic.

In fact, last year, the City actually demanded that police brutality victim Trung Huynh return his $47,500 in settlement money to the City, claiming that his attorney violated the settlement’s gag order when he gave an interview to the Telegraph & Gazette.

That incident led Telegram & Gazette columnist Clive McFarlane to write:

… while confidentiality agreements might be standard in civil cases, it seems fair to ask just how the city, a public entity, justly serves its constituents with such agreements, particularly in police brutality cases?

If the city keeps refusing to acknowledge wrongdoing in these settled cases and keeps insisting on muzzling successful plaintiffs and their lawyers, how does it begin to address the potential of misconduct among the police ranks?

–Clive McFarlane, “Gag orders aren’t the way to earn respect,” Telegram & Gazette, March 10, 2010

Given that Officer Rojas was allowed to work as a police officer even after he sent disturbing death threats to a former girlfriend, I’m not sure I would conclude that the City actually has any interest in addressing the problem of police misconduct. It’s quite clear that Worcester’s city government is in desperate need of some serious reforms.

Aug 21 2011

Man in hospital after Framingham officer strikes him with cruiser

Dr. Q

According to The MetroWest Daily News, a man was hospitalized during the early hours of Saturday morning after Framingham police officer James Wright struck him with his cruiser on Waverly Street. The man was reported as being in critical condition.

Framingham Police Lt. Ron Brandolini told the Daily News that the man appeared to be drunk and stumbled off the sidewalk in front of the cruiser. Based on this description, it sounds as though the man who was struck by the cruiser was at fault, not Officer Wright. But, of course, we only have the police department’s side of the story.

At the time of the accident, Officer Wright was responding to a non-emergency call and was not using his emergency lights. If Officer Wright was driving at an excessive speed or otherwise driving negligently, then he might be the one at fault.

At this point, there isn’t really enough information to place the blame on either of the involved parties.

There is one piece of technology that could easily clear matters like these up. Over the past several decades, many police departments across the country have been relying on dashboard-mounted video cameras (often called “dashcams” for short) to record their officers’ driving and interactions with the public.

According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 61% of local police departments regularly used dashcams in 2007. These departments used approximately 41,000 dashcams. Police departments across the United States operated an estimated 286,000 cars in 2007 which means that only about a quarter of police vehicles were outfitted with dashcams.

I was curious to know if the Framingham police used dashcams, so I searched their website. When I was unable to find any information about them, I called the department. A dispatcher told me that not a single one of the department’s vehicles is equipped with a dashcam.

Unless a surveillance camera or a bystander with a camera happened to record the accident on Saturday, we may never know exactly what happened.

If the Framingham police were to install dashcams in their cruisers, they could greatly benefit the residents of Framingham. Anyone who felt that they had witnessed police misconduct or been the victim of police abuse could request dashcam footage under the Massachusetts public records law and use the footage to file a complaint or sue the police.

Dashcams could also potentially help the police. Footage recorded by dashcams could be used as evidence in criminal cases. It could also be used to defend the Framingham police against baseless accusations of brutality and misconduct.

If you have any experience obtaining dashcam footage from a Massachusetts police department under the public records law, leave us a comment or send us an email using our contact page.