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Cops mistaking Star Trek memorabilia for weaponry used excessive force, suit says

Fort Lauderdale police (Bastique/WikiCommons)

Fort Lauderdale police officers violated civil rights law when they entered the home garage of two city residents and detained them with excessive force, brothers Raymond and Randall Purcell allege in a lawsuit filed Monday against the officers and the city.

In depositions, the officers said they felt threatened because of weaponry displayed on the walls — items that the plaintiffs say were harmless Star Trek memorabilia.

One of the officers, Steven Pohorence, made news last year when he was charged with first-degree misdemeanor battery in connection with a clash between protesters and Fort Lauderdale police that followed the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd.

The Purcells are seeking a minimum $75,000 in damages in connection with an earlier, April 2017 incident wherein officer Alexander Paul hit then-62-year-old Raymond with the butt of his gun, slammed him to the ground and pulled his arms so forcefully that “Raymond heard a snap in his arms and went limp,” the suit says. Paul then allegedly punched him in the face “with so much force that it knocked Raymond’s acrylic partial dentures out of his mouth.”

All the while, Raymond pleaded with Paul, telling him he was disabled. And when his brother Randall attempted to intervene, the other officer, Pohorence, kicked him, placed his foot on his face and left him with a half-inch cut near his eye.

“As a direct and proximate result of the city’s negligent supervision, retention and training of defendants Pohorence and Paul, [the Purcells] were subject to injury, including deprivations of their civil rights and state law rights,” the brothers’ attorneys wrote in the complaint. The Purcells “suffered damages, including mental anguish, bodily injury, pain and suffering, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of earnings, and loss of ability to earn money,” the lawsuit says.

The FLPD did not respond to a request for comment.

Filed in Broward’s Circuit Court, the lawsuit marks the latest use-of-force-related legal action against the city and FLPD officers since Floyd’s death last year in Minneapolis led to nationwide protests, a national reckoning and increased scrutiny of FLPD’s use-of-force practices.

Floyd is the Black man who was killed when officer Derek Chauvin pinned him face down to the pavement with a knee for nearly nine minutes. Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder, and the trial for the case began last week.

Following Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward and other local groups organized a May 31, 2020, protest in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Pohorence was charged with battery after he was spotted shoving a kneeling protester, inflaming the crowd of protesters.

Pohorence, who has been reviewed by FLPD’s internal affairs unit for using force 79 times in his under four years with the department, was suspended after the shoving and is now on administrative leave without pay.

The other officer, Paul, is being sued in another case for shooting Broward resident Melvin Wring in June 2019 in a confrontation at the Broward County Transit central bus terminal. Wring, 30 at the time of the shooting, alleges that Paul used unnecessary deadly force when Wring posed no threat. Wring is asking a minimum $30,000 in damages.

According to the Purcell suit, a FLPD IA probe of Pohorence’s and Paul’s conduct at the Purcell home concluded in 2019 exonerated both officers. The files were never submitted to the Citizens’ Police Review Board, which typically reviews investigations after they’re completed by internal affairs and recommends disciplinary actions, the suit says.

In a statement, the Purcells’ attorney, Michael T. Davis said: “It is unfortunate and unsurprising that the Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s internal affairs investigation cleared both officers of wrongdoing. It is yet another example of the need for a system in which these types of investigations seek justice rather than justification.”

Davis vowed that he and the co-counsel on the case, Ben Kuehne, would “relentlessly seek justice” for the Purcells.

Citing the pending status of the litigation, City Attorney Alain Boileau declined to comment — as did the Fort Lauderdale Fraternal Order of Police, which had not yet heard of the suit Tuesday evening, according to President Brandon Diaz.

An officer safety issue

What initially brought Paul and Pohorence to the Purcell household was a 911 call from Raymond himself, a news release regarding the lawsuit said.

Raymond’s car as well as his wife’s had been keyed, allegedly by a relative, so he contacted law enforcement for an investigation and requested that officers make an arrest. But when the officers arrived on-scene, they said that there would be no arrest or police report filed because the damage to the cars appeared to be under $1,000 and the relative was no longer at the property.

Offended, Raymond slammed his fist on the hood of the car, the suit says. Standing inside the garage of his house, Raymond also tossed a flashlight he had been using to show the officers the vandalism. It was flung in a direction opposite of where the officers stood, the suit adds.

As Raymond reached to turn the doorknob and enter his home, the officers proceeded to forcefully detain him and his brother, Randall.

In depositions for the case, Paul and Pohorence said they felt threatened by the Purcells because they knew Raymond had a concealed firearms permit and a firearm in the home. They also saw “weapons all over the wall,” Paul said.

Those weapons were Star Trek memorabilia and decorative blades, according to the suit.

Asked whether they had probable cause to arrest Raymond, both officers said no.

“We were detaining him for an officer-safety issue,” Pohorence said.

In its final pages, the 34-page complaint says both the city and its police department maintain a de facto practice of concealing officer misconduct. After the incident at the Purcell residence, it alleges that both failed to investigate the officers’ behavior.

“The city and its Police Department supervisors and superiors knew its officers were initiating unlawful searches and seizures as well as using excessive force against Fort Lauderdale civilians and residents,” it reads. “It took no action to train or discipline its police officers to avoid the constitutional violations discussed in this Complaint.”

Earlier this year, the FLPD concluded another internal affairs use-of-force investigation, regarding the May 31, 2020, shooting of LaToya Ratlieff, who attended the protest in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. It found that FLPD Detective Eliezer Ramos did nothing wrong when he shot her in the face with a rubber bullet, shattering her eye socket.

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