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Beck v. City of Pittsburgh

July 22, 1996

ROBERT BECK,

APPELLANT,

v.

CITY OF PITTSBURGH,

APPELLEE.



An Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania

D.C. No. 94-cv-156 Argued May 21, 1996

Before: SLOVITER, Chief Judge, SAROKIN and ROSENN, Circuit Judges.

ROSENN, Circuit Judge.

(Opinion Filed July 22, l996)

OPINION OF THE COURT

This appeal raises a question of considerable interest in this period of alleged rising police brutality in major cities across the country: *fn1 when does an aggrieved citizen adduce sufficient evidence to a jury from which it can infer that a municipality has adopted a custom of permitting its police officers to use excessive force in the performance of their duties. Specifically, we must determine if the plaintiff, Robert G. Beck, presented sufficient evidence to withstand a motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a).

Beck, a rehabilitation counselor for the Epilepsy Foundation of America, sued Police Officer Anthony Williams and his employer, the City of Pittsburgh, in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, under 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983, for deprivations of his constitutional rights. Beck alleged that Williams engaged in police brutality and used excessive force against him while making an arrest, and that the City of Pittsburgh's custom of tacitly authorizing its police officers to use excessive force resulted in Beck's personal injuries and damages. Beck brought additional pendent state law tort claims against Officer Williams.

The district court bifurcated Beck's cases against Williams and the City of Pittsburgh. Beck's case against Williams ended in a mistrial when the jury could not return a verdict. Beck dropped his case against Williams, and proceeded only against the City. After Beck presented his case, the City moved for judgment as a matter of law. The court granted the motion, holding that Beck presented insufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the City of Pittsburgh had established a policy or custom tacitly authorizing its police officers to use excessive force. Beck timely appealed to this court. *fn2 We reverse the judgment of the district court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. *fn3

I.

In the early morning hours of October 31, 1993, Beck and two college friends left a Halloween party on the South Side of Pittsburgh. Beck had borrowed his parents' car for the evening, and parked it in a vacant lot near the party site. It had begun to sleet, and as Beck began to drive the car toward the exit of the parking lot, it skidded in circles on the wet pavement. Although the parties have differing views on what occurred next, for the purposes of this appeal, we must view the evidence in a light most favorable to Beck, the nonmoving party. See Macleary v. Hines, 817 F.2d 1081, 1083 (3d Cir. 1987). Thus, we take the facts from Beck's testimony and other evidence presented by him at trial.

Beck testified that Officer Williams, working alone, blocked the only exit from the lot with his police cruiser. Williams stopped Beck's car, and ordered him out of the vehicle. Beck claimed that he complied with all of Officer Williams's commands. Williams kicked the door shut as Beck attempted to get out of his car, then jerked open the door, and pushed his gun into Beck's face. After cursing at Beck and using obscene language, Williams allegedly struck him in the face six to eight times with the end of his gun, pulled Beck from the car, forced him to the ground, and kicked him in the ribs. At this time, several other police officers arrived at the scene. An officer placed Beck into Williams's police vehicle, and Williams, alone, removed Beck to the police station. There, he charged Beck with "driving under the influence" and reckless driving, and lodged him in a cell.

Subsequently, Beck filed a formal civilian complaint with the Police Department against Williams. The Office of Professional Standards ("OPS"), the city department responsible for investigating complaints against police officers, investigated. OPS took statements from Beck, his two companions who witnessed the incident, and Officer Williams. Although Beck's friends fully supported Beck's allegations, OPS found Beck's complaint to be unfounded, noting that the mug shot taken on the night he was in custody did not reveal any evidence of the trauma he claimed.

At trial, Beck called Carla Gedman, a civilian assistant chief of OPS, as a witness. Gedman supervises all OPS employees and investigators, and is responsible for forwarding all OPS findings through the chain of command in the Pittsburgh Police Department to the Chief of Police. *fn4 Gedman testified that OPS acts as a fact-finding body, and is not responsible for disciplining police officers. OPS merely investigates each complaint against an officer for use of excessive force, and decides whether the complaint is "unfounded," "exonerated," "not sustained," "sustained," or "closed by memo." It makes no recommendations. OPS merely forwards its result to Police Department officials (see supra note 4). The Department may overturn any OPS finding. Gedman could not remember, however, if the Department ever actually had reversed an OPS finding.

Gedman testified that OPS will classify a complaint as "unfounded" when the facts indicate that the complainant is untruthful or inaccurate; and as "exonerated" when everything the complainant states is true, but OPS finds that the officer followed proper police procedure. OPS will label a complaint as "closed by memo" when a complainant drops the claim, or is uncooperative in the investigatory process. Further, OPS applies a preponderance of evidence standard in determining whether to sustain a complaint. Gedman explained that the complainant has the burden of showing that 51% of the evidence supports his or her version of the incident. Beck contends that OPS's preponderance standard mandates a finding of "not sustained" whenever OPS is faced with only the complainant's word against the officer's word. Gedman stated that she "wouldn't be comfortable" with that assessment. She testified, however, that a finding of "not sustained" amounts to a "draw," where OPS can neither prove nor disprove the allegations.

According to Gedman, OPS approaches each complaint against a police officer as a separate, independent event. Thus, OPS cabins each complaint and will not consider prior conduct of or prior complaints against the officer in determining the outcome of the pending complaint. Gedman further testified that OPS has no formal policy or mechanism in place to track prior complaints. She noted that, in the exercise of her discretion, she may alert police officials if she notices that an officer has a number of complaints against him or her within a short period of time, e.g., two months. From her perspective, Gedman testified that she did not consider prior complaints of the use of excessive force relevant in assessing the pending complaint under investigation. She further stated: "We do not report patterns of cases to the police bureau." However, the OPS annual report does contain statistics of complaints relating to police use of excessive force and statistics pertaining to complaints of police verbal abuse. In some cases where Gedman believes it to be relevant, Gedman testified that she may report a series of incidents to the chain of command for a particular officer, but that is within her discretion. She does not have a formal system for determining when or what particular conduct calls for such a report.

Beck also offered in evidence excerpts of the deposition of Charles Moffit, Pittsburgh's assistant chief of operations. Moffit is the first person in the police chain of command to review OPS findings. He stated that the Police Department will only take an officer's prior conduct into account in reviewing an OPS finding if OPS has sustained a complaint against the officer for that conduct.

In addition to the above, Beck introduced reports of specific civilian complaints against Williams for use of excessive force. In October 1990, OPS investigated a written complaint filed against Officer Williams by Demetrius Yancey. Yancey complained that for no apparent reason, Williams grabbed him and pushed his face hard against the police vehicle. The officer searched him and was verbally abusive. The OPS report of the case found: Yancey's brother, who was present at the incident, gave a statement to the investigator almost identical to the complainant's. Both brothers were questioned separately and there were no inconsistencies. "The Yancey brothers were very vehement on the denunciation of Officer Williams conduct and also they were believable." The report, however, recommended that the case be closed as not sustained because "there is [sic] no in depth corroborations of the allegations." On April ...


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