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Columbia Missourian

New excessive force lawsuit to be filed against Columbia police officers

By Sangeeta Shastry
November 9, 2011 | 4:19 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Attorney Stephen Wyse will file a federal lawsuit within the next week alleging civil rights abuses by the Columbia Police Department after two of his clients complained that officers pointed guns at them, handcuffed them and searched their car unnecessarily.

Phillip Porter, 32, and Joshua Williams, 30, filed a complaint with the department Oct. 13, the same day of the incident in a parking lot adjacent to the Rainbow Softball Fields at Cosmopolitan Park.

Police Chief Ken Burton, through an assistant, declined to comment on the pending investigation.

At Wyse's direction, Porter and Williams re-created their interaction with the three officers at a Wednesday afternoon news conference in the same parking lot that the incident occurred.

The two said they were sitting in Williams' car at noon in the empty parking lot listening to rap music. Both had cans of beer, though Williams, who was sitting in the driver's seat, said he hadn't opened his.

Open container laws do not apply at the softball fields, and alcohol is routinely served during games. In any case, Wyse said the officers didn't complain about the men having beer.

Porter and Williams said they saw lights approaching and turned to see officers Jeff Forck, Matt Stephens and Scott Decker approaching them on motorcycles. The three officers stopped about 25 feet from the car, and Porter and Williams could hear them saying something. So they moved to turn down the loud music. They said the officers moved closer — to about 10 feet away — their guns still drawn and fingers on the triggers.

The two said they heard the officers shouting: "Don't move!" "Hands up!" "Don't do it.; It's not worth it!"

The officers asked Porter and Williams whether they had weapons or drugs, to which Williams said he responded that he had a registered .40-caliber gun in his car. The officers pulled both men from the car and handcuffed them. Williams said the officers also questioned him about a felony conviction he said he didn't have. (A search of Missouri did not reveal any felony convictions for Williams.)

Williams said he asked the officers to handcuff him gently, as he had recently suffered a wrist injury. But he said the officers didn't heed his request and injured his wrists, which required medical treatment later. Williams wore a wrist brace at the news conference, and Wyse noted that Williams footed the medical bills from the incident.

Porter was held for about 20 minutes and Williams for about an hour while the officers waited for a patrol car to transport them to the police department. But the two were released before other officers arrived.

Wyse said the officers cited suspicious behavior and Porter and Williams' failure to follow instructions as reasons for taking the actions in question. He said his lawsuit would allege Fourth and Fifth amendment violations and the officers' excessive use of force.

Wyse said that on Oct. 20, he requested an audio recording the officers made during the arrest but received a copy he couldn't play. He filed another request Monday but said he has yet to hear back from the department.

He said he wanted to "provide a human face to what's often a statistic" of what he suspected was racial profiling. Both Porter and William are black.

"I feel like if that was a couple of white men out here, this wouldn't have happened," Wyse said.

Porter and Williams agreed.

"I don't want to feel that way, but do you jump down on every two black people you see sitting in a car in a park?" Porter said. "I didn't feel like it was necessarily handled properly."

Wyse said he saw publicity about the incident as an opportunity to voice serious concerns he has with the department, which fired former Officer Rob Sanders for his use of force against a prisoner on Aug. 14 and is still investigating other instances of use of force.

"I think it's a moment to drive the point home," Wyse said. "But I would have done the same thing regardless of the moment within the department."

Wyse said he thinks the chief is "trying hard" to make changes but that the friction caused by other officers is slowing the process.

"I think this chief is trying to turn the corner, trying to get the department better connected to the community," Wyse said. "He's got a department that doesn't want to turn the corner. He's riding a bull, trying not to get thrown underneath."