Man punched by Decatur officer says in lawsuit city ignores 'excessive force,' inadequate training

Mar. 18—A Black liquor store owner who was punched and had his jaw broken by a white Decatur police officer in 2020 alleges in a federal lawsuit that the incident was an example of systematic use of "excessive force" by the Decatur Police Department that the city often ignores.

The lawsuit filed March 11 on behalf of Kevin Penn, owner of Star Spirits & Beverages on Sixth Avenue Northeast, names police officer Justin Rippen and the city of Decatur as defendants.

Civil rights attorney Hank Sherrod III, of Florence, and Decatur attorney Carl Cole filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. The lawsuit alleges Penn's constitutional rights were violated by illegal seizure, false arrest and excessive force. It seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

City Attorney Herman Marks said Thursday that his department hasn't yet received a notice of the lawsuit and he declined comment.

Mayor Tab Bowling said he regrets that a lawsuit has been filed against the city but referred questions to the legal department.

The case has been assigned to a magistrate judge. If either of the two sides does not consent to a magistrate, the case will be reassigned to a U.S. District judge.

Sherrod said civil rights cases are "all I do. I'm one of the few lawyers in the state who does this 100% of the time. I'm in Florence, but I've done cases in Mobile, Dothan, Fort Payne and all over the state."

Sherrod said the primary reason they filed the lawsuit in federal court is the "violations of his (Penn's) constitutional rights, among other things, and the primary law is a federal law."

If the lawsuit had been filed in Morgan County Circuit Court, Sherrod said, the city and Rippen also "would likely have it removed to federal court."

The lawsuit alleges that the city regularly receives complaints that Decatur police officers "react with unjustifiable violence and false charges when a citizen speaks up or otherwise asserts his rights as an American citizen."

The suit also accuses officers of "using common charges like obstructing governmental operation, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest" against local citizens.

"It is well known in the Decatur legal community that Decatur officers frequently use these charges, commonly referred to as POP (p--- off police) charges, without a legal basis," the lawsuit says.

Sherrod said using the obstructing governmental operations charge "is standard procedure for most police jurisdictions and 100% used in north Alabama." — Training questioned

The lawsuit says city officials failed to ensure officers were trained and supervised on the limits of their constitutional authority.

"It is well known to experienced police officers and to city policymakers" that police officers "without proper training and supervision regarding the limits of their authority, are likely to violate the constitutional roles."

The city's policymakers were aware of numerous incidents "in which citizens were subjected to unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests and uses of force but took no action to investigate and discipline officers," the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit does not give any specifics on the Penn's allegations against the city, and Sherrod said specifics usually aren't included in the initial complaint.

In the March 15, 2020, incident at his liquor store, Penn stopped an attempted theft with the auto lock to his front door and held the suspected shoplifter at gunpoint.

Surveillance video shows Penn unloading his gun as police arrive. The video appears to show Penn setting the magazine from the weapon down as the police officers approach. An officer, who has been identified as Rippen, then appears to punch Penn and handcuff him.

Nate Allen, who was Decatur's police chief at the time, said during a June 8, 2020, news conference that Penn was reloading the magazine immediately before being punched.

"We do know there was a gun there, we do know the magazines were there, we do know that he was reloading the magazine," Allen said then.

Body camera video shows an argument between police and Penn as he is near the counter where his gun had been placed. Decatur police said an officer told Penn to put his gun down and he responded that he had a right to have a gun.

Allen said in June 2020 that response gave Rippen the impression that Penn was carrying a gun. Allen, who retired as chief in January, also said at the time that the call to 911 reporting the incident referred to it as a robbery, rather than a shoplifting attempt, so officers were wary as they entered. — Store owner charged

After Penn was punched, Rippen and the two other officers wrestled Penn to the floor and Rippen handcuffed him.

Penn was arrested and charged with misdemeanor obstruction of governmental operations. He spent six weeks with his jaws wired shut as he recovered from the incident.

Sherrod said the misdemeanor charges against Penn are still pending and Cole is ready defend them in court.

"I don't know why they're still active or they haven't set a court date," Sherrod said.

Sherrod said Penn "promptly" filed regarding the assault and false arrest complaint after the punching incident "and the city did nothing. Mr. Penn hasn't heard from the city to this day."

The city refused to investigate the incident, and Rippen wasn't disciplined, the Penn lawsuit says.

The incident didn't become public until June 2020, three months after it occurred, when an excerpt of surveillance video was released on social media. Rippen was placed on administrative duty June 8, a day after the excerpt was posted. Allen said in July 2020 that a departmental investigation of the incident had ended and Rippen "has been dealt with."

The lawsuit says, "This very case presents a prime example as it was only the public release of video footage from one of Penn's surveillance cameras that cause the city to even pretend like it was investigating the matter."

"The city's policymakers did not criticize Rippen's assault of Penn or Rippen's arrest of Penn," the suit continues.

After the video became public, Councilman Billy Jackson did call for the termination of Rippen's employment. or 256-340-2432. Twitter @DD_BayneHughes.