City of Phoenix pays $800,000 to settle 2 more police misconduct cases

The city of Phoenix will make two more payments to settle the lawsuits filed against its police department.

The Phoenix City Council voted to approve the agreements Wednesday afternoon. Between the two cases, the city will pay $800,000.

It’s not the largest sum the city has paid in recent memory to settle a case involving the conduct of Phoenix police officers. In November, the city paid $5 million to settle a lawsuit in the death of Muhammad Muhaymin, a black man who died during an arrest. Over the years, the amount of money the city has paid out in police settlements has run into the tens of millions.

One of the cases, which the council voted to resolve on Wednesday, was a lawsuit brought by the family of Ekom Udofia, a black man shot dead by officers as he approached them while holding a BB gun. He was 33 years old.

The city settled that case for $250,000, after the council agreed to a 6-2 vote. Conservative members Jim Waring and Sal DiCiccio opposed without explaining their votes.

click to enlarge A Phoenix Police Department vehicle.  - PONDE ASHES

A Phoenix Police Department vehicle.

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The second case, Canney vs. City of Phoenix, was introduced in 2019 by the family of Dawn Bestenlehner, who was hit and killed by a man driving a stolen U-Haul truck while running from a Phoenix police officer. The officer, Justin Gillett, had conducted the high-speed chase down 31st Avenue without his hazard lights and siren on, in violation of department policy, attorneys argued in legal pleadings.

A crash ensued, killing Bestenlehner, who was standing on the sidewalk waiting for a ride home from work. Lawyers for his surviving parents and children filed a wrongful death lawsuit the following year. The city settled that case for $550,000.

The council unanimously approved the settlement in the Bestenlehner case.

A spokesman for the city of Phoenix declined to comment Wednesday after the vote. The city “has nothing additional to add,” spokesman Dan Wilson said.

A settlement in the Udofia case ends the legal battle over the shooting, which at the time had sparked protests.

A year after his death, Udofia’s parents sued the city, claiming that officers’ “negligence” had resulted in an unnecessary shooting. They “beat Ekom and negligently caused his death,” the lawyers wrote in the complaint.

Udofia, who grew up in Scottsdale, was a former NFL player and is remembered by family and friends as a “gentle giant.” However, he had battled mental illness and, on the night of his death, he was wandering the street, appearing dazed and jumping on passing cars, according to a person he called 911.

When officers arrived, according to body camera footage that captured most of what led up to the shooting, Udofia did not obey orders to drop the gun. He also did not appear to point the gun at the officers. Instead, he walked slowly toward them, the BB gun dangling from his left hand. However, the quality of the footage makes it difficult to be sure what happened, and the officers involved say they believed the gun was real and said they feared for their lives.

After six initial shots, as Udofia approached, the officers continued to fire at him, even as he lay on the ground. As Udofia lay in the street, the officers fired live bullets at her again and then fired other projectiles at her, including pepper balls and stun bags. Finally, a police dog was thrown on him, which dragged him across the asphalt.

It is not clear if the officers involved were disciplined. New Times has submitted a request for those records, but it has been pending for more than two months with no response. All of the officers remain on the force, according to the most recent city records.

Lawyers for the Udofia family did not immediately respond to inquiries from New Times on Wednesday, but Roger Riviere, the lead attorney in the Bestenlehner case, said the settlement vindicated his family.

“Dawn was loved by her family,” Riviere said. New Times. The agreement, he said, “gives them some closure” and was “finally an acknowledgment from the city that one of the officers did not comply with the city’s pursuit procedures.”

The officer involved was suspended as a result of what happened, albeit for less than a week, Riviere said. In 2020, he took medical retirement and left the force, city records show. Riviere said he was in his thirties when he left.

The Phoenix Police Department is currently facing an investigation by the US Department of Justice for its use of force, including for high-profile deaths like Muhaymin’s.

The Justice Department investigation will be yet another legal expense for a city that, like Wednesday, regularly pays large sums to resolve complaints about its policing practices. According to an ABC15 report earlier this month, the city has hired top attorney Michael Bromwich to represent them during the course of the investigation, at a rate of between $550 and $700 an hour.

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams announced this month that she plans to retire, after leading the force for nearly six years. The city is now looking for an interim chief specifically to lead the department through the upcoming investigation.

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