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An Alabama liquor store owner has sued in federal court after a police officer responding to a robbery call at his store punched him in the face and broke his jaw in March 2020.
Lawyers for Kevin Penn, the owner of Star Spirits & Beverages, filed a suit on March 11 against police officer Justin Rippen and the city of Decatur. Penn is Black and Rippen is white. Penn alleges that the incident is indicative of others involving officers using excessive force within their city.
The suit alleges the systematic use of “excessive force” by the Decatur Police Department is often ignored. The lawsuit also seeks monetary damages as Penn’s constitutional rights were allegedly violated by illegal seizure, false arrest, and excessive force.
So what happened on March 11, 2020?
Penn had trapped a shoplifter with an electronic lock and the suspect was lying on the ground, with Penn holding him at gunpoint. Surveillance video shows Penn unloading his gun as police arrive. The video appears to show Penn setting the gun magazine down as the officer approached. The officers, including Rippen, knew Penn was the store owner at the time.
An officer walked past the suspect and told Penn to put down his weapon. Penn refused saying, “I have a right to have my gun,” according to body camera video. When the officers shouted again about the gun, he put it down, then told him he would file a complaint, according to the lawsuit. An officer, who has been identified as Rippen, then appears to punch Penn.
Rippen and two other officers wrestled Penn to the ground and handcuffed him, the video shows. Penn was arrested and charged with obstructing a robbery investigation.
As a result of the punch, Penn’s jaw was broken and he lost a tooth. The 27-year-old officer was put on desk duty on June 8, 2020, a day after video footage of the punch was leaked on social media. Meanwhile, Penn would recover with his mouth wired-shut for the next six weeks.
Does the State of Alabama condone excessive force?
“The City regularly receives complaints from citizens regarding officer misconduct in violation of constitutional rights and regularly ignores them, just as it did with Penn’s complaints,” the suit claims.
City Attorney Herman Marks said Thursday his department hasn’t yet received the lawsuit and declined comment. Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling said he regrets a lawsuit has been filed but referred questions to Marks.
The lawsuit alleges the city regularly receives complaints that officers “react with unjustifiable violence and false charges when a citizen speaks up or otherwise asserts his rights as an American citizen.”
Whether an unsuspecting victim such as Breonna Taylor or having one’s life-breath squeezed from their neck like George Floyd, police misconduct blanketed the most consequential year in modern U.S. history. Alabama was no different.
The suit also accuses officers of “using common charges like obstructing governmental operation, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest” against local citizens.
“It is well known in the Decatur legal community that Decatur officers frequently use these charges, commonly referred to as POP (p— off police) charges, without a legal basis,” the lawsuit states.
Penn’s lawyer, Hank Sherrod III, said using the obstructing governmental operations charge “is standard procedure for most police jurisdictions and 100% used in north Alabama.”
City leaders were aware of numerous situations “in which citizens were subjected to unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests and uses of force but took no action to investigate and discipline officers,” the federal lawsuit says.
Sherrod said Penn “promptly” filed a complaint regarding the assault and false arrest complaint after he was punched “and the city did nothing. Mr. Penn hasn’t heard from the city to this day.” Rippen wasn’t disciplined, the Penn lawsuit says. No investigation began until the video became public in June 2020, three months after it happened.
Whether in Alabama or any one of the other 49 states, cases of police brutality are often only acknowledged with the addition of video recording, however, even with footage, justice is not always guaranteed to victims.
The full lawsuit can be read here.