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Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 01:15 pm

No joking matter

Police sued after cops laugh

A Springfield man has sued officers from Springfield and Jerome, claiming that police used excessive force while arresting him a year ago.

A police microphone captures officers Michael Brown and Chance Warnisher of the Springfield Police Department and Steven Stirmell, then an officer with the Village of Jerome, in a jovial mood immediately following the arrest of George Dawson, 73. One of the officers – it is not clear which one – describes the arrest as “fucking hilarious.”

Dawson suffered injuries serious enough that he had to undergo surgery to repair damage to a rotator cuff, says his attorney, Bradley Wilson. Misdemeanor charges of resisting a police officer against Dawson were dismissed in March.

A microphone worn by Stirmell captures the officers talking before the arrest and afterward but the audio recording is silent for the portion of the incident during which Dawson is taken into custody. There are no visual images of Dawson’s encounter with police.

Wilson says he does not believe the lack of audio or video recordings of the arrest itself will prevent a verdict in favor of his client.

“Any problems that might cause we’ll be able to overcome,” Wilson said. “I believe we’ll have enough evidence.”

Included in that evidence is bruising and a rotator cuff tear, Wilson said. The injuries, the attorney says, are inconsistent with claims made by officers in written reports that Dawson tripped and fell after being pushed. At the time, officers say, Dawson was interfering with the arrest of his son, Greg, who was being arrested for driving while intoxicated.

It all started on Dec. 14 of last year when Stirmell spotted Greg Dawson speeding and tried to pull him over. Instead of stopping, Dawson drove to his parents’ home, then bailed out of the pickup truck he was driving and ran. Stirmell gave chase, but Greg Dawson jumped a fence behind the home and disappeared.

Shortly afterward, Brown and Warnisher arrived to assist Stirmell, who referred to the elder Dawson as a “fucking dick” who had once told him to turn off his emergency lights after Stirmell had stopped a motorist in the parking lot of Dawson’s business in Jerome. The tape also captures an officer, whose identity is not clear, referring to the elder Dawson as a “fucking asshole.”

Such derogatory remarks buoy the contention that officers acted improperly, Wilson says.

“I believe that the comments made before the actual assault of our client support the claim that they conspired to carry out their activities,” Wilson said.

What happened next is subject to dispute, given that Stirmell’s microphone apparently stopped working for unknown reasons, resulting in a gap in the audio recording of several minutes while both Dawsons were arrested outside range of a camera mounted to the dashboard of the Jerome officer’s patrol car.

In his report, Warnisher wrote that Brown pushed George Dawson away when the plaintiff attempted to intervene while police were handcuffing his son, who had been found at a driveway adjacent to his house. Brown acknowledged pushing Dawson and reported that the plaintiff also tripped and fell.

Dawson, however, claims that he hindered no one and had his hands “held up in a passive position” when he approached Warnisher and Stirmell, who were bent over his son on the ground. He said Warnisher kicked him when he pleaded for officers to ensure his son wasn’t injured by a nearby police dog. After Warnisher kicked him, Dawson says that Brown slammed him face first into the driveway. In his claim against Stirmell, Dawson says that the Jerome officer should have intervened but did not.

Shortly after the confrontation, the audio recording resumes, and officers can be heard laughing about it. Stirmell says that city officers “took him down.” One officer declared the incident “fucking hilarious.” An officer also acknowledges kicking the elder Dawson in the chest.

“You’re so badass, pushing a 70-year-old man around,” one officer tells another.

“Hell yeah, I will,” the officer responds.

Police also laugh about the elder Dawson saying that he was having a heart attack.

Springfield deputy chief Cliff Buscher said he was not familiar with the incident or the lawsuit. R. Scott McTaggart, president of the Jerome village board of trustees, could not be reached for comment.

Stirmell is no longer employed by Jerome. He was due to be laid off last spring, but was put on administrative leave after he came under suspicion for allegedly filing a false police report stating that a motorist he pulled over on suspicion of DUI had put a breath mint in her mouth, casting doubt on the result of a breath test. He has been charged with official misconduct and obstruction of justice. Stirmell was charged with DUI last month after crashing his pickup truck.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

The video contains gaps. The relevant portions are from 13:05 until 13:30, when officers give disparaging opinions about Dawson, and from 26:30 until 30:38, when they talk about his arrest.

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