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SCADD client suing New London police, city for violation of rights, use of excessive force

By Karen Florin

Publication: The Day

Published 05/09/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 05/08/2013 11:54 PM

New London - A 32-year-old Storrs man who says he was beaten and pepper-sprayed by city police outside the Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence detoxifcation center on Dec. 14, 2011, is suing the city, four police officers and two other New London employees in U.S. District Court.

Reuben J. Miller is suing police Officers Joseph Pelchat, Joshua Bergeson, Kurt Lavimoniere and Sgt. Robert Pickett for alleged violations of his civil and constitutional rights and use of excessive force.

Miller also names in the civil complaint city social worker Tabatha Maiorano, who was riding with Bergeson on the night of the incident, and firefighter Michael Kuchyt, a first responder to a call to take Miller to the hospital for a dangerously high blood alcohol content of 0.38.

Bridgeport attorney Tina Sypek D'Amato filed the lawsuit on April 29, the same day New London announced it had reinstated Bergeson to the police department. Bergeson was fired in January 2012 following an administrative hearing to review his role in the Miller incident.

The complaint says Miller suffered "economic damages, great humiliation, aggravation, physical pain, contusions to his eye, face, head and ribs, a rib fracture and emotional harm, entitling him to punitive damages and actual money damages for pain and suffering.

"The city's conduct was so extreme and outrageous that it exceeded all acceptable bounds of decency and was furthermore atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized society," the complaint says.

The complaint also says the city "has a policy, custom or practice of failing to adequately train officers, like the ones involved in this incident. This custom, practice or policy allows its officers to violate the constitutional rights of citizens, resulting in their use of excessive force."

Asked for comment, Sypek D'Amato said the complaint speaks for itself. New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and Deputy Police Chief Peter G. Reichard said they could not comment on pending litigation.

West Hartford attorney James N. Tallberg, who is representing the city and police officers, said in an email, "We deny the plaintiff's baseless allegations and look forward to being vindicated in court."

An alleged assault

According to the complaint, Miller was visibly intoxicated, stumbling and slurring his words when the ambulance arrived at the SCADD detox center at 47 W. Coit St. He was standing near his girlfriend's car, begging her to take him home, when Pelchat, the first police officer, arrived.

The complaint says Pelchat jumped out of his cruiser and without provocation and without identifying himself, grabbed Miller from behind and brought him to the ground. Kuchyt jumped in and held Miller's arms as Pelchat hit him, the complaint says. Bergeson arrived and slammed Miller's face into the pavement and punched him in the face, eyes and ribs several times, according to the complaint.

Maiorano, the social worker, "jumped in and held the plaintiff down, sitting on his legs," while Pelchat and Bergeson hit him, according to the complaint. She was a member of the city's Crisis Intervention Team, which helps police with mental health evaluations during crisis calls.

Lavimoniere and Pickett arrived, and Lavimoniere took over for Maiorano, then punched Miller in the left hip three times with a closed fist, according to the complaint.

Bergeson pepper-sprayed Miller in the face for several seconds, according to the complaint.

"At no time was (Miller) a threat to his girlfriend or anyone else," says the complaint.

The officers arrested Miller rather than taking him to the hospital, even though he was groaning loudly, having trouble breathing and was "in significant pain," according to the complaint.

The incident was witnessed by several SCADD employees, including Stanley Jurgielewicz, a technician, who told The Day that the police had treated Miller "like a piece of trash."

Police charged Miller with interfering with an officer and second-degree breach of peace. In January, he pleaded no contest in New London Superior Court to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct and received a suspended prison sentence and one year of probation.

Following an internal police department review of the incident, then-Sgt. LJ Keating found that officers did not violate the police department's standards pertaining to use of force. Keating has since been promoted to lieutenant.

The report recommended addressing department procedures such as report writing, improper use of pepper spray, driving police vehicles not assigned to the correct officers and not using in-car cruiser cameras. A dispatcher also was criticized for the manner in which officers were sent to the scene.

The report said Bergeson had incorrectly deployed pepper-spray and initially filed an incomplete report on Miller's arrest. It also said the incident may "appear worse on the surface to the average onlooker than it really is."

"Many civilians are accustomed to seeing law enforcement officers in customary roles and not the 'hands on' role during an active hands arrest, fight, or struggle," the report stated. The report said Miller had told police he drank at least a 30-pack of beer a day.

Court records indicate Miller pleaded guilty to interfering with Willimantic police in 2008 and was convicted in February 2013 of two counts of second-degree breach of peace.

k.florin@theday.com

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