Trenton Learns Just How Expensive Cop Insanity Can Be
July 29, 2016 (Fault Lines) — On Thursday, July 21, New Jersey taxpayers gave a lot of money to Lael Queen and Kenia Leiva. Both Queen and Leiva were residents of Trenton, and both had been brutalized by the police.
Not that there’s anything weird about that. In many cities, especially big ones, settlements for police misconduct are the new normal. Some administrations budget for them. Others, like Chicago’s, have been forced into strange legal contortions by the huge pile of lawsuits, choosing to settle the ones in front of them now to avoid testimony that might damage political careers or the city’s ability to defend against the next batch. That kind of political convenience doesn’t come cheap: though the median settlement in Chicago costs taxpayers “just” $36,000, payouts are now routinely into six, seven, even eight figures.
In general, America’s Second City is a good example of a place with a police misconduct problem. On average, it settles a lawsuit every other day. The Chicago Reporter, an advocacy magazine, recently set up a database to catalogue the settlements and judgments entered against the city, and the results are very depressing.
It turns out Chicago settles 86% of the time. Taxpayers are really feeling the pinch, with the city paying out $210 million between 2012 and 2015. Whether Chicago chooses to settle quickly or fight, the cost of the litigation ($53 million spent on outside counsel) is another big burden. And in an especially unpleasant twist, the city’s borrowing money to cover the costs. Because of the interest on those loans, taxpayers in Chicago and cities like it, where mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel have utterly failed to reform their police departments, are getting screwed over twice.
And the nationwide cost of police abuse is staggering. According to public records obtained by the Wall Street Journal, the ten U.S. cities with the largest police departments paid out nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to victims of police misconduct in 2014. In part due to the rise in video of police encounters, these lawsuits are piling up: after you factor in inflation, that quarter of a billion dollars represents a 34% increase over the cost of similar awards in 2010.
So what makes Trenton’s latest payout special? By the standards of the $5.9 million given to the family of Eric Garner by the city taxpayers of New York, or even the $850,000 Karolina Obrycka got from the city taxpayers of Chicago after CPD Officer Anthony Abbate randomly beat her up in a bar, the $218,000 Trenton taxpayers had to cough up for the brutality of Officers Travis Maxwell, Michael Lucchesi and former Officer Victoria Berrios seems a little puny.
Sure, Trenton is a small and poor place. That $218,000 is the yearly income of seven average Trenton households. But even so, $218,000 seems like too little to compensate Queen and Leiva for the abuse they suffered at the hands of the police.
Let’s start with Queen. On July 4, 2014, he was washing some clothes at a Trenton laundromat when he saw five cops, including Maxwell and Lucchesi, arresting a woman he knew, Kiare Hunt Eccels. According to his lawsuit and an interview he gave to The Trentonian, the police officers screamed “bitch” and “cunt” at Eccels before they slammed her into the wall, threw her on the ground, jumped on her and started punching her in the face. Queen pulled out his phone and began to record the arrest. After a while, Maxwell and the other cops noticed. They weren’t too pleased, especially when Queen told them he was planning on showing the video to Internal Affairs.
Queen’s description of what happened next is a dark piece of comedy:
While recording Defendant Maxwell’s and Defendant Officer John Doe 1’s perceived unconstitutional and unlawful assault of Eccles, Defendant Officer John Doe 1 learned that Plaintiff was recording such assault and charged Plaintiff, repeatedly kicking him. Plaintiff questioned Defendant Officer John Doe 1 as to why he was kicking him and such officer responded by telling Plaintiff that he was “interfering with his investigation.”
Queen retreated into the laundromat to gather his clothes. As he came out, still recording, the cops decided to escalate things from kicking to a full-on beating. According to the lawsuit, one of the cops attacked Queen from behind. The officers then surrounded him and threw punches, interspersed with things like pulling Queen’s dreadlocks and hitting him in the face with his own shoe.
Still not satisfied with this level of psychopathy, the cops got Officer Lucchesi’s K9 dog in on the fun:
Defendant Lucchesi’s K-9 dog attacked and savagely bit Plaintiff’s leg while Defendant Officer John Doe 1 slammed Plaintiff to the ground and continued to hit him.
After slamming Plaintiff on the ground, Defendant Officer John Doe 1 continued to scream out “stop resisting;” while hitting Plaintiff and shoving his head into the hard concrete despite that Plaintiff was motionless […]
[…] Defendant Officer John Doe 1 stated to Plaintiff: “You want to record shit? We’ll teach you about recording shit.”
The officers charged Queen with obstruction of justice and resisting arrest, then took him in jail. There are photos of Queen’s mauled face and leg; at one point, there was also video of Queen’s beating, but it seems to have been deleted. Security camera footage from the laundromat confirmed the sequence of events as Queen described it. As for the video of Eccels’ beating, it mysteriously disappeared off the phone after the cops confiscated it.
For his ordeal, Queen received a settlement of $175,000. Both Maxwell and Lucchesi are still employed as Trenton cops.
Meanwhile, Kenia Leiva received $43,000 for being the victim of what can only be described as a psychotic rampage at the hands of Officer Victoria Berrios. On August 29, 2011, Leiva went to a bar to pick up a friend. She caught the eye of Officer Berrios, who was off-duty and allegedly very drunk, in the parking lot.
According to the lawsuit, Berrios did the following things:
- called Leiva a “bitch” and threatened to “kick her ass”
- tried to pull Leiva out of the passenger-side window of her car
- told the bouncer who tried to intervene “don’t touch me, I’m a fucking police officer”
- when Leiva took the opportunity to flee, jumped in her own car and chased her back to her home
- smashed Leiva’s car window with her flashlight
- when Leiva got out, chased her down the street, punching her
- chased Leiva into her home, knocked her down and started to beat and stomp on her
- on her way out, returned to punch Leiva in the face one last time
At the hospital, Leiva had to have a piece of jewelry surgically removed because Berrios hit her so hard it became embedded in her skin.
Berrios lost her job during an unrelated wave of layoffs in September 2011; although she was indicted in April, 2013, the charges (burglary and two counts of aggravated assault) were dismissed after she completed a pretrial diversionary program. Needless to say, an offer of this kind is unlikely to have been made to someone who wasn’t a police officer.
There is a financial as well as a moral imperative to get rid of this kind of cop. When the same small-town department harbors psychopaths as well as officers prone to psychotic breaks, abuses of this kind will pile up, payouts will increase and the burdens borne by residents who are already likely to have it hard will get heavier. However difficult the prospect of reform may be, cases like Queen’s and Leiva’s show the alternative is unendurable.