Rhode Island Lawyer’s Weekly has a great story on a recent $1.3 million police brutality settlement involving the City of Pawtucket stemming from the 2008 shooting of a 30 year old Pawtucket man – Jason M. Swift – who had suffered a nervous breakdown and was shot and killed as the police followed him upstairs into his room.
Two months ago, on the eve of trial, the City of Pawtucket settled with the mother of Swift’s 3-year-old son after U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith denied Pawtucket’s motion for summary judgment and ordered most of the plaintiffs’ claims against the city and several of its police officers to go to trial.
According to lawyers for the plaintiffs, that ruling was not only key to the parties’ decision to settle, it contains tough lessons for attorneys involved in high-stakes civil litigation. Reporter Julia Reischel talked to Providence attorney Stephen P. Sheehan — who, along with Max H. Wistow, represented the plaintiffs — about how the ruling will affect future police brutality cases in Rhode Island.
Q. How big is this settlement compared to others in Rhode Island?
A. This is certainly the largest settlement I’m aware of in a case involving police brutality, and I’ve been practicing in Rhode Island for 20 years.
Q. Why did Judge Smith keep the opinion under seal until after the settlement, when the case itself wasn’t under seal?
A. The judge’s opinion was issued at a time when questionnaires had already been sent out to over 100 prospective jurors identifying the case and asking detailed questions in order to determine whether or not they had bias. In consequence, the prospective jurors were in the position of likely reading about the opinion in the newspaper that they then were going to be asked not to read anything about. The decision [to seal the opinion] was on the judge’s own initiative — not a motion from either party — to preserve the jury from taint pending juror selection.
Q. Is that unusual?
A. It’s very unusual and, one could argue, I suppose, whether it should happen or not. It was a temporary order by the court. The court contemplated that the opinion would be released at some point, but after a time when the jury pool would have at least been instructed not to read the paper. I think it’s very unusual that summary judgment in an opinion like this is issued at a time that a jury is being empanelled. Usually, opinions are issued before then. What happened here is that there was a very extensive briefing on the motion for summary judgment that delayed the final submission of the motion to the judge, [so that] two deadlines overlapped.
Q. What is the most notable legal issue in the opinion?
A. This case illustrates the danger of answering an allegation in a complaint without admitting or denying it. The complaint asked the city to admit or deny that the officers were in compliance with the city’s policies, [and the city] dodged having to make a decision on the issue by not answering that allegation. The laws say that if you just say, “I refuse to admit or deny,” then that statement will be treated as an admission. Lawyers answering complaints often do precisely what the defendants did here, but it’s rare that it has such a dramatic consequence as it did here.
In this case, it resulted in the denial of the motion for summary judgment by the city, and at trial it would have foreclosed the city from introducing evidence that [the police officers were] not acting in accordance with its policies, even if the jury found that one of the police officers basically executed Jason Swift.
Q. Was the city’s desire to avoid that problem at trial the reason the case settled?
A. I wouldn’t say that. I think the real reason why the case settled is that the evidence against the individual officers was so strong. In the testimony of the assistant medical examiner who actually performed the autopsy, there were two wounds in Swift’s chest, and both of them were severely downward, indicating that he was shot from a point above him and from his side. All four of the officers who were in the room during the shooting testified that Jason approached them fully upright with his arms outstretched. So, there was a real likelihood that the four officers would have been disbelieved by the jury. You have an impartial coroner completely and flatly contradicting the testimony of four officers. [There was] huge potential for punitive damages.
Q. Couldn’t the city have offered evidence at trial that called the medical examiner’s testimony into question?
A. I think that [the city’s] expert was going to end up offering a scenario that the defendants themselves said didn’t happen. In the end, they would have had to argue that all the officers were mistaken, which is not a good place to be.
Q. In its pleading, why didn’t the city say that the officers were not following official policy when Swift was killed?
A. They were given an opportunity to amend the pleading, which is the way, customarily, that the defendant gets out from under this kind of admission. They declined, because they didn’t want to take a position where the police officers were not following their customs and practices, because they thought it would undermine the individual defendants’ case. The city has a policy of indemnifying officers.
Q. Now that the case has settled, will the police officers be disciplined?
A. The Pawtucket Police Department has internal disciplinary procedures, which, according to the chief of police, were postponed pending the resolution of this case. Members of the family have met with the chief of police to try to advocate for the termination of the officer who shot Jason Swift. But these disciplinary proceedings are internal and are confidential, and therefore the family has very little ability to directly participate in, or have knowledge of, the outcome.
Q. What kind of impact will the settlement have on Rhode Island law?
A. In a very short period of time in Rhode Island, there were at least three fatal incidents, including this one, that involved mentally disturbed people interacting with the police. As a result of that, municipalities across the state have revisited their policies for police interaction with mentally ill individuals. Really, on a public policy level, what the case highlights is the need for police training to deal with this population that doesn’t respond to police commands the way rational decision-makers do.