Judge weighs discrimination arguments
By Brent Curtis
STAFF WRITER | December 11,2012
A federal judge will soon decide whether to dismiss discrimination claims in a lawsuit involving a man who was beaten and pepper-sprayed in his own home by Hartford Police.
The three officers who responded to a potential burglary at the home of Wayne Burwell were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by the state Attorney General, which reviewed the case.
But in a federal lawsuit filed in July, Burwell, who is black, sued officers Fredrick Peyton, Scott Moody and Kristinnah Adams along with Hartford Police Chief Glenn Cutting and the town itself for 12 allegations ranging from excessive force to negligence.
Two of the claims also allege racial discrimination on the part of Peyton, Moody and Adams.
But in a motion argued in U.S. District Court in Rutland on Monday, the lawyer representing the three officers said there was no evidence that the officers acted with any racial bias during the incident with Burwell.
Police were called to Burwell’s three-story townhouse in Wilder on May 29, 2010 by a housekeeper who told police that an intruder might be in the house and that the man in the home was black.
Police said they found the home in disarray and filled with smoke and the blaring of fire alarms. Burwell was found sitting naked on a toilet in an incoherent state that police said they believed was drug induced.
In reality, Burwell was suffering from a medical condition that he had been hospitalized for weeks earlier.
When Burwell didn’t respond to demands that he show his hands and get on the floor he was sprayed with pepper spray and struck repeatedly with batons during a scuffle with the officers.
It wasn’t until after Burwell had been handcuffed and dragged outside naked except for a blanket that police confirmed he owned the home and released him.
Robin Curtiss, a New Hampshire attorney representing Burwell, said in his lawsuit that racial bias determined the outcome of the incident.
“From the moment the defendant officers knew that the male in the bathroom ... was black, they concluded that he must be engaged in criminal activity and treated him accordingly,” Curtiss wrote.
But in his motion to dismiss the discrimination claims, Middlebury attorney James Carroll argued that there was no evidence that the officers’ conduct was motivated by race.
“They were dealing with a potential intruder, not race,” Carroll said. “They were under real duress to figure out what was going on.”
But Curtiss said in court that the officers’ discrimination was evident based on the officers’ deviation from their own policies.
“The Hartford Police Department policy regarding OC spray states that it is to be used only to subdue an attacker or violent person. There was no evidence of that in this case. He was sitting on a toilet yet the police emptied a can of OC spray on him,” Curtiss said.
Curtiss also said that the officers were told by the woman who initially called the police that the person inside could be the homeowner. A neighbor also told police before they entered the home that Burwell had recently been hospitalized after he was found unconscious.
“There was no attempt made to find out if he owned the place,” Curtiss said. “They found out he was black and that colored everything that happened after that.”
At the end of the hearing, Judge Christina Reiss said she would attempt to issue a decision within 45 days.