City Council considers seeking aid in defending Wichita police against use-of-force litigation

04/13/2013 4:42 PM

08/06/2014 8:35 AM

An increasing number of lawsuits over use of force by Wichita police officers is prompting the City Council to consider hiring outside, private attorneys to help defend the city.

A proposal to hire the Topeka law firm of Fisher, Patterson, Sayler & Smith is on the council’s Tuesday consent agenda.

The city is dealing with several ongoing civil rights lawsuits filed in federal court alleging excessive force by Wichita police officers and has come under increased criticism after a series of shootings involving officers.

The city is facing a June 11 trial in federal court in which Rowana Riggs says that an officer hit her in the face and repeatedly kicked her in the stomach and pelvic area. She said the incident occurred in April 2007 when she was 49 and had recently undergone lung-cancer surgery. The city’s attorneys have argued in that case that the officer’s actions were “objectively reasonable” under the circumstances he was facing.

In another lawsuit, Lakeda Dixon says that officers responding to a noise complaint in November 2010 used excessive force when they fatally shot her husband, Jerome Dixon, in their doorway in front of his two young children.

The lawsuit says that Jerome Dixon didn’t know the officers were present, “posed no immediate threat” to the officers and was holding a handgun pointed downward as he was trying to remove the gun from the home to keep it safely away from his children.

The district attorney’s office found that Dixon’s shooting was justified and that Dixon pointed the gun directly at an officer after being ordered to drop the weapon.

Wichita attorney James A. Thompson said he has brought four excessive-force lawsuits against police, including the Dixon case, and is about to file a fifth lawsuit in the police shooting of Karen L. Jackson. She died July 10 after being shot multiple times outside her estranged husband’s home when she approached officers with a knife. District Attorney Marc Bennett found that the use of deadly force was justified in Jackson’s death.

“That’s the five (cases) that I’ve taken. I’ve turned down” others, Thompson said, because of a combination of factors.

In the Dixon lawsuit, which was moved to federal court in January, Thompson wrote that “approximately 9 other citizens of Wichita have been shot by Wichita Police Department officers, and many of those died as a result of the shooting.”

“The enormous number of police shootings by the Wichita Police Department is extremely abnormal for a city the size of Wichita and shows an unwritten de facto policy of unnecessarily using force,” Thompson wrote in the lawsuit.

Chief Deputy City Attorney Sharon Dickgrafe declined to respond to those accusations, saying she can’t comment on pending litigation.

According to a city memo about the proposal to hire legal help, the city is trying to respond to an increase in the number of claims filed over the use of force.

“Due to the time-intensive nature of defending these claims in federal court, the specialized nature of the practice and current legal staffing levels, assistance is required to assist in adequately defending these actions and responding in a timely manner,” city staff members wrote in a memo to the City Council.

So far, there hasn’t been a problem with responding in a timely manner; the proposed assistance would prevent that from happening, Dickgrafe said.

Four firms submitted proposals for providing the legal services.

According to the proposed contract fee schedule, the outside attorneys would be paid from $145 to $175 an hour, and a paralegal or legal assistant would charge $80 an hour. The contract would be for one year and could be renewed.

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