Friday, July 24, 2009

Store video catches cop bullying woman

WHEN AGNES LAWLESS and three friends were inside a Lukoil convenience store in the Northeast at 3 a.m. last August, they'd all but forgotten the fender-bender in which they'd been involved moments earlier.

There was little damage, and the other driver had left the scene, near Northeast Philadelphia Airport.

What they didn't know was that they'd been rear-ended by the son of a police officer who was on duty, and dad was about to get involved.

Lawless was standing at the counter of the store, at Comly Road and Roosevelt Boulevard, smiling and chatting with the clerk, when she was grabbed from behind and violently pushed back with a police officer's gun in her face.

"He hit me with his left hand, and he had his gun in his right hand," Lawless said. "He pushed his gun into the left side of my neck. It caused a scrape-type bruise on my neck."

After a chaotic struggle, Lawless was arrested and charged with assaulting the officer.

Lawless and her three friends, all in their early 20s, filed complaints with the Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau. But in cases in which it's a defendant's word against a police officer's, the benefit of doubt often falls to the cop.

Except when there's video.

Once surveillance video from the store's four security cameras was released, the case against Lawless collapsed, and disciplinary action commenced against the officer, Alberto Lopez Sr. A lawsuit against the city is likely.

The incident provides a vivid example of how the countless video recordings generated today by security cameras and cell phones are affecting police work.

Drexel Law School professor Donald Tibbs said that video recordings are capturing more criminal activity and assisting prosecutions, but they're also monitoring police conduct.

"Police are now aware they're more accountable for their actions, because these tapes may be used against them in misconduct cases or civil-rights lawsuits," Tibbs said.

And Tibbs said that there are numerous cases of police seeking to confiscate and destroy tapes that may have captured a police action.

Internal Affairs probe

The clerk on duty the night that Lopez confronted Lawless told investigators that three times after the incident, police officers spoke with him about the security tape and that two asked if he would erase it.

An Internal Affairs investigation found no misconduct among officers who spoke with the clerk about the tape. But it concluded that Lopez had verbally abused Lawless, had jammed his gun into her face and had violated departmental procedures that night.

A hearing to determine what discipline, if any, will be imposed on Lopez is still pending.

Lopez's attorney, Gerald Stanshine, declined to comment and said that Lopez couldn't discuss the incident. Lopez's son, Alberto Lopez Jr., didn't respond to messages seeking comment.

Although some details of what happened are in dispute, it's clear that the Lukoil encounter occurred a few minutes after the blue Mazda in which Lawless was riding was rear-ended at Decatur and Comly roads by a Buick Century driven at slow speed by Lopez Jr.

Lopez Jr. left the scene and drove to the Eighth District police station, at Academy and Red Lion roads, to report the incident to his father. Officer Lopez and his son then left in his patrol car and soon saw the blue Mazda in the Lukoil parking lot.

Officer Lopez entered the store with his son and got into a physical confrontation with Lawless. Lawless ended up in cuffs, charged with assaulting Lopez.

At a preliminary hearing four days later, Officer Lopez testified that he'd come into the store and ordered Lawless and the three young men with her to the floor, and that "she freaked out, started punching, slapping and kicking me multiple times."

Based on the officer's testimony, Judge Robert Blasi ordered that the case proceed to trial.

But four days later, investigators from Internal Affairs got the store's surveillance video of the incident, and things changed quickly.

Lopez was assigned to desk duty and his weapon was removed. He failed to show up at three trial dates for Lawless' assault charges, which then were dropped. Images from four security cameras at the store reveal an encounter consistent with the accounts of Lawless, her three friends and Carlos "Tito" Ruiz, the clerk on duty at the time.

There is no audio, and the video is not continuous, capturing images at intervals ranging from three per second to one every few seconds.

The images show that when Officer Lopez entered the store, Lawless was at the counter, smiling and apparently unaware of his presence behind her.

Lopez grabbed Lawless' neck from behind with his left hand, with his gun in his right hand. Lawless broke free and faced him.

"I was really confused," Lawless said in an interview. "I didn't know if we were getting robbed. I remember seeing his uniform on his arm, he swung me around and hit me with his arm. He hit me first with an open hand, then he hit me with his gun in the face."

The video shows Lopez's left arm extending toward Lawless' face, and then his right arm driving forcefully toward her, jamming the gun in her neck or jaw.

Lawless broke free again, and for several seconds the video shows the three young men sitting on the floor, while arguing occurs among all four and Officer Lopez and his son.

"I had noticed his son as the guy who had hit us," Lawless said, "and [Officer Lopez] was screaming, 'You think you can hit my son and get away with it, you think you can f--- with me?' "

The store clerk reported hearing similar comments from Officer Lopez.

Lawless said that she and her friends were yelling back that it was Lopez Jr. who had hit their car and left.

'I was really scared'

About a minute after the gun was in her neck, the video shows Officer Lopez on his cell phone, apparently calling for more police, when Lawless grabbed her bag and tried to walk out of the store.

"I remember stopping for a second, and thinking, like, 'This is out of control, I need to go get a real cop or something,' " Lawless said. "I was really scared."

Lopez Jr. intercepted Lawless and pushed her backward over the counter, with his right hand on her neck. Officer Lopez joined in and struggled with Lawless, who swung her arms at the two of them.

At that point, Lawless' friend Matthew Whatley came over and got between them, as did Ruiz, the store clerk. According to his statement to investigators, Ruiz managed to get Lawless and her friends to lie on the floor and wait for more police to arrive.

Then, according to the Internal Affairs report of Ruiz's statement, Officer Lopez told him to "do himself a favor and get rid of the camera tapes."

More officers soon arrived, and Lawless was cuffed and arrested. Her three friends were questioned and allowed to leave.

In his arrest report, Officer Lopez mentioned the auto accident that had initiated the events, but never mentioned that his son had been involved, referring to him in the report only as "the witness."

Ruiz told investigators that Lopez mentioned erasing the tape again after other officers arrived. He said that police visited him at the store twice the next day and asked him whether he would erase the tape. He also said that they had advised him to "help the cop out and testify for the cop."

Eventually, Lukoil turned the tapes over to Internal Affairs and to Whatley's family.

Although Officer Lopez and his son declined to discuss the incident with the Daily News, transcripts of their interviews with an Internal Affairs investigator provide their account of the events that night.

Lopez Jr. said that after the accident, the occupants of the blue Mazda got out of the car and began shouting, cursing and kicking his car.

He said that he left and drove to the Eighth District station, where he described the events to Officer William Forster in the operations room.

Forster put out a "flash" description on police radio of the car and its occupants. Forster told Internal Affairs that when Lopez Jr. described the incident, he never mentioned the possibility that any of the car's occupants might be armed.

But in his statement to Internal Affairs later, Lopez Jr. said that in the shouting at the accident scene, one of the occupants of the Mazda, a Hispanic male, "was reaching under his shirt and he was saying, 'Get him the f--- out of the car; I got something for him.' "

Ruiz, the Lukoil clerk, told investigators that after officers arrived following the altercation in the convenience store, he heard Officer Lopez give his son some instructions in Spanish, including, " 'Say he had a gun.' "

Lopez Sr. and Jr. both denied that, saying that the younger Lopez speaks almost no Spanish. Officer Lopez told investigators that his son had said from the beginning that a Hispanic man from the Mazda "lifted up his shirt and made a motion as if he had a gun."

The Internal Affairs report noted, however, that Officer Lopez's conduct inside the Lukoil store seemed inconsistent with a suspicion that he might be confronting armed suspects.

The video showed that he never frisked any of the young men, and at times left them unattended on the floor of the store while he went outside. When asked by Internal Affairs why he had allowed his son into the store if he thought someone had a gun and he was going to take police action, Lopez said: "I didn't even think about it. It happened so fast. It was bad judgment."

Ironically, Lopez Jr. had a .22-caliber Magnum revolver in his waistband during the accident and throughout the confrontation in the Lukoil, according to his statement to Internal Affairs. He had a permit to carry the weapon, he said in the statement.

The driver of the Mazda, Stephen Soda, also had a handgun in his glove compartment along with his carry permit, according to police. Police reviewed the permit and released Soda without charges. Neither weapon was drawn in the incident.

Officer Lopez said that before he grabbed Lawless in the store, he'd ordered her and her friends to the floor several times, and that the three men had complied.

But the video shows that Lopez grabbed Lawless' neck no more than five seconds after he entered the store, and that all three men were still standing.

He said that he had his gun in his hand with his finger outside the trigger, and "used three fingers of my gun hand and gripped her shirt to try to get her to the floor because she was still swinging at me."

The video doesn't show Lawless swinging at Lopez then. She does appear to swing at Lopez and his son later, after they stopped her from leaving the store, and Lopez Jr. appeared to push her back over the store counter by her neck.

Officer Lopez said that Lawless "told me I was a Mexican, I was here illegally, and that I should go back to Mexico." Lopez Jr. said she was "calling my father a f---ing s--c, a Mexican."

Lawless acknowledged in an interview that in her fury she "got racial."

Lawless wasn't seriously injured in the incident, but she said she had pain in her neck, back and jaw.

A night in jail

She spent the night in a jail cell, where she counted 23 mice and saw feces on the walls, she said.

"Somebody had probably had s--- on their hands and smudged it all over the wall," she said. "In the morning I threw up. It smelled so bad."

She said that she was emotionally traumatized for months, and afraid of the police. She moved to Florida earlier this year.

The District Attorney's Office reviewed the case and declined to prosecute Officer Lopez in December. Eight days later, he was reissued his weapon and returned to full duty.

But he may yet face discipline from the Police Department.

The Internal Affairs report concluded that Lopez had verbally abused Lawless and that he had pushed his gun into her neck.

Investigators did not sustain a charge of physical abuse based on Lawless' reported injuries. The report cited a lack of visible signs of injury on her arrest photograph, and said a "very minor scratch/abrasion to her left chin area . . . may have occurred at any point during Ms. Lawless' resistance to P/O Lopez's attempts to restrain Ms. Lawless or during her physical confrontation with Alberto Lopez Jr. when she tried to flee the store."

The report noted that Lawless was treated for bruises and abrasions at Frankford Hospital-Torresdale (now Aria Health's Torresdale Campus), two days after the incident, but that efforts to secure further medical records from her attorney had been unsuccessful.

The Internal Affairs report concluded that Lopez had committed "departmental violations," and it expressed skepticism about the claim that one of the four occupants of the Mazda appeared to have had a gun.

The report also noted that "by taking his son inside the Lukoil to confront the complainants, P/O Lopez made a dangerous situation even more volatile because of his close relationship with the alleged victim of the earlier attack."

Lawless' attorney, Alan Yatvin, said that he was exploring a civil suit on her behalf.

"I'm troubled by the conduct of the officer, about his telling a story that lacks credibility, and about the fact he thought he could get away with it," Yatvin said.

He said it's also troubling that so many officers apparently sought to dispose of the video, the key evidence in the case, and suffered no consequence after Internal Affairs investigated.

At the end of his interview with Internal Affairs, Lopez was asked if he would like to add anything that would assist the investigation.

"I would like to have used better judgment that night," the officer said.

Source with video

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