Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mesa pays $2 million to settle police shooting case

by Nathan Gonzalez - Sept. 25, 2008 06:06 PM
The Mesa Republic

Mesa has agreed to pay $2 million to the family of James Deon Lennox, who was fatally shot in 2006 by a Mesa detective after Lennox fought with and threw a plastic chair at the officer.

The settlement, reached in June but just coming to light, comes more than a year after Lennox's family filed suit in federal court, alleging Detective David Kohler used excessive force when he shot the 35-year-old father of four.

"We feel vindicated," Lennox's mother, Joetta Cooper, said from her Sacramento home. "I'm glad he can now rest in peace and the family can now move on. Life cannot move on until you forgive. Your life will be at a standstill."
Deputy City Attorney Mark Ishikawa said the settlement, the second-largest in city history, is not an admission of wrongdoing by Kohler or the city.

"In an incident like this, just because something is settled doesn't mean anything was done wrong," Ishikawa said. "We just had a difference of opinion of the facts of the case."

The March 30, 2006, incident began after Lennox and his live-in girlfriend returned from celebrating his recent promotion. The couple got into an argument and police were called. 

Three officers, including Kohler, were on the scene when one used pepper spray to subdue Lennox, according to the family's lawsuit. He twice attempted to surrender to police. Kohler threw Lennox to the ground and the two began wrestling, the suit said.

"Several of the witnesses to the event stated the officer used an ethnic slur before the shooting," said Herb Ely, the Lennox family attorney. Police have denied that.

Lennox rose to his feet and flung a chair, hitting Kohler in the shoulder, the lawsuit states. Lennox then threw a second chair and Kohler fired twice, hitting Lennox in the chest and shoulder.

Kohler told investigators he fired at Lennox after the man punched him several times in the face, threw the plastic chair and was reaching for a metal chair.

Kohler was cleared of wrongdoing.

"The police officer should not have felt he was in danger," Ely said. "This was a lawn chair that weighed a few pounds."

The incident will be reviewed by the department's Use of Force Board, which will determine whether Kohler violated any policies or if additional training for officers is needed, said Sgt. Ed Wessing, a police spokesman.

"At the request of the city, they asked that we didn't do that review until the case was resolved," Wessing said.

Kohler, an 18-year veteran of the department, declined, through Wessing, to comment.
Chief George Gascón indefinitely removed Kohler from outside field work after the detective was involved in another shooting this year, Wessing said.

Lennox's mother said she no longer faults Kohler or the Police Department. She blamed lawmakers and policymakers who "allow police to shoot if they are in any way in danger."

"The laws they put in place allowed for this to happen," she said. "Back in the day, they had lynching for minorities. As far as I'm concerned, the modern-day lynching is a shooting by police officer."

The largest payout by the city was $2.4 million to Bruce Bellemore, who in 2004 fell about 10 feet from a tree and landed on his head after he was shot twice with a Taser stun gun by a police officer. The incident left him a quadriplegic.