Wheelchair-bound Taser victim hires lawyers; Merced police chief defends officers' actions

Oakland attorney working on BART shooting case.

September 26, 2009 

A legless, wheelchair-bound man who was Tasered by Merced police officers has hired two lawyers -- one of them a high-profile civil rights attorney with a lengthy track record of handling police brutality cases.

Meanwhile, the police department announced that the city has hired its own attorney, and Chief Norm Andrade said Friday that he believes the arresting officers followed policy.

Renowned Oakland attorney John Burris has signed on to represent Greg Williams, the 40-year-old double amputee who spent six days in jail after two Merced police officers arrested him Sept. 11 on suspicion of domestic violence and resisting arrest.

Williams was unarmed, and the District Attorney's Office has declined to file any charges against him. At the same time that Williams was arrested, his 2-year-old daughter was taken by a child welfare worker and his wife was sent to jail on an outstanding domestic violence warrant.

Williams claims that he was Tasered without cause and that he never acted violently toward the police. Besides his allegation of excessive force, he has said he was publicly humiliated when the officers left him handcuffed and nude from the waist down for several minutes in front of a small crowd that had gathered outside his K Street apartment.

In the department's first public statements about the arrest, Andrade offered a version of events fairly similar to that outlined by Williams and police reports. But he said that based on what internal investigators have learned so far, the officers' actions appear justified.

As officers tried to arrest him, "Mr. Williams refused to comply and became progressively more belligerent," Andrade said during an afternoon press conference. "(The officers) obviously used the level of force necessary to the threat that Mr. Williams had given them."

Andrade didn't explain what Williams said or did to cause the officers to fear for their safety, but he nonetheless said they felt threatened. He named the safety of Williams' daughter as the primary reason officers decided to Tase him, then acknowledged later that the girl already was in the hands of a child welfare worker when the Tasing took place.

He noted that the neighborhood where Williams lives is considered a "high maintenance" trouble area, and that officers tried for roughly 30 minutes to convince Williams to allow them to arrest him without force.

He said Williams was stunned once for less than five seconds, causing him to release his grip on his wheelchair so that officers could handcuff him. Andrade called it "unfortunate" that Williams' genitals were exposed to his neighbors and said officers didn't mean to humiliate him.

The two officers involved in the incident, Sgt. Rodney Court and Officer John Pinnegar, remain on duty. Both are white. Williams is black. Andrade made no mention of allegations that issues of race and class might have played a role in the officers' actions.

The police department's Internal Affairs Division opened an investigation after one of Williams' relatives filed a complaint. Andrade said the inquiry is ongoing and that findings will be forwarded to the state Attorney General's Office.

In addition to Burris, Williams has hired a Stockton-based attorney named David Drivon.

After a closed-door meeting with Williams on Thursday, Burris and Drivon said in interviews that they'll carry out an investigation of their own. The attorneys aren't taking any payment up front but will collect 40 percent of any award, Williams' relatives said.

"I firmly believe that if a person has been victimized by the police in an egregious way that he should be represented," Burris said. "Dave and I are going to investigate the case, see what witnesses (are) available and go from there."

The city is being represented by Dale Allen, police Lt. Andre Matthews said.

Based in San Francisco, Allen has worked for the police department before, including on cases involving Tasers. The city hired him earlier this year to defend against a wrongful death lawsuit filed by relatives of a man who died on Highway 99 after officers used Tasers to subdue him.

Burris said the law allows his client six months to file a claim with the city of Merced. If the claim is rejected, Williams will have six months to file a lawsuit in Superior Court, or two years to file a lawsuit in federal court.

"Once I've completed the investigation, I will then go from there," Burris said. "I'm not really in a position to say what I am going to do and when I am going to do it."

Burris is no stranger to cases of alleged police abuse. He's representing the family of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man shot to death in Oakland on New Year's Day by 27-year-old Johannes Mehserle, a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer.

According to Burris' Web site, his client list also has included Rodney King, Barry Bonds, late rapper Tupac Shakur, actor Delroy Lindo and former NFL football player Keyshawn Johnson.

The day of his arrest, Williams said he and his wife, 28-year-old Demetrice Shaunte Phifer, were involved in a verbal argument when a marked Merced Police Department patrol car arrived at the couple's apartment at 2355 K St.

He claims Pinnegar unholstered his Taser and jammed it into his rib cage on the left side of his body, shocking him twice. Williams said he fell from his chair on his stomach, onto the ground outside of the doorway in front of his apartment.

A short video clip, shot by a neighbor and obtained by the Sun-Star, clearly shows Williams sitting on the pavement with his pants down, his hands cuffed behind his back.

A police report written by the arresting officers states that Williams was shocked in the shoulder. It says the officers tried to reason with Williams before the arrest, to no avail. The officers wrote that Williams was uncooperative and refused to turn over his daughter to a Child Protective Services worker.

Police received reports of drug use at Williams' apartment, and his wife claimed he'd hit her three times in the stomach, according to the report. Williams denies those accusations.

He said Thursday that he hasn't seen his daughter since the day of his arrest, and that getting her back is his main concern. The girl is now with other family members.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com. Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209)385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.

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