The City of Independence recently paid out more than $82,000 in a legal settlement after a police officer punched a man twice during an arrest last year outside a grocery store.
The incident was captured on surveillance video after a man entered the Price Chopper store at 4201 South Noland Road on Feb. 1, 2020, and told a manager that someone was trying to kill him. The manager called police to report a disturbance.
After two police officers responded and the man exited the store, the officers had an altercation with the man. One officer, David Wehlermann, struck the man twice while arresting him.
The man was cited for interference but the city later paid out the settlement before any lawsuit was filed. The Star is not naming the man in this story because he was experiencing a mental health crisis and was allegedly the victim of police brutality.
Policing and accountability experts said punching someone in the face to gain control of them during an arrest was generally not appropriate, and questioned whether the officer’s report on the events was accurate.
“The use of force is both a particularly contentious aspect of policing and an exceptionally important component of police-community relations,” said Seth W. Stoughton, a former Florida police officer who teaches law at the University of South Carolina.
“When officers are perceived as using force when it is avoidable, or using more force than the situation requires, or using force in problematically disparate ways, it can dramatically reduce public trust and police legitimacy. That’s especially significant because effective policing relies on public trust.”
The Independence Police Department did not respond to questions about the incident, the settlement or the employment status of the officers.
Independence Mayor Eileen Weir’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Independence has paid out several large settlements and legal judgments for incidents involving its police.
Last year, the city paid $100,000 in a lawsuit accusing Police Chief Brad Halsey of harassment and assault. In 2019, the city paid more than $563,000 after shooting two men at a Dollar General. One man was a suspect while the other had rushed to the store in an effort to protect his wife and child.
In 2018, a jury awarded a man $6.5 million after he was nearly killed when a police officer used a Taser on him.
Attorney Stephen Williams, who represented the man in the Price Chopper arrest, said trust and accountability between police and the community were essential to maintaining public safety.
“However, when police officers abuse the authority invested in them it destroys trust and tears at the fabric of cohesion in our city,” he said. “Therefore, it is necessary that we hold police officers responsible for their actions.”
Video from a surveillance camera inside the grocery store shows the man in a back room talking to a manager.
According to a police narrative, the two officers were called to the store after the man said people were trying to kill him.
A second video shows the man, who is Black, leave the back room with the two officers. The three exit out the main doors of the store.
A third video shows them outside near the corner of the store as Wehlermann jabs his finger towards the man and then grabs him. A scuffle starts and Wehlermann punches the man. As the man lies on the ground, Wehlermann puts his knee on the man’s back.
The officer appears to throw two strikes, the first targeted to the man’s chest and the second at the man’s face, Stoughton said.
Generally, Stoughton said, strikes to the face may be appropriate in self-defense, but are not appropriate when an officer is trying to get control of a resisting subject.
In a police report, Wehlermann wrote that the man refused to follow their commands. Wehlermann “grasped” the man’s arm and “escorted him to the ground,” the report said.
The report does not mention the strikes.
The man was taken to jail and charged with interference.
The Star’s attempts to reach the man by phone for comment on this story were not successful.
It is not clear if the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office has reviewed the incident. Michael Mansur, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said Monday he was inquiring into whether the office received a report on the arrest.
Settlement and video
The $82,500 settlement was recorded in public records recently obtained by The Star, which had requested legal claims and settlements paid by the police department.
As part of the city’s agreement with the man, the city denied fault.
Lauren Bonds, legal director for the National Police Accountability Project, said that the amount was “a pretty sizable settlement for what the officer described as a controlled takedown.”
“One can deduce there is at least some evidence contradicting the officer’s narrative,” she said.
Earlier this month, the police department and the city clerk’s office denied having surveillance videos from the store that captured the incident. But on Friday, the clerk’s office provided the recordings to The Star.
Bonds said transparency in use of force incidents was important “to ensure public confidence in the police.”
“It is also critical that taxpayers know when their money is going towards settlements like these.”