Victim's family receives payment from officer; city not liable for death

Posted: October 26, 2010

A federal jury has ruled that a Philadelphia police officer who killed an unarmed man after a foot chase in 2006 has to pay the man's family $138,000.

The jury did not, however, find that the city or former Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson could be held responsible for the death of 25-year-old Raymond Pelzer.

At the heart of the case was the argument that the Police Department should have established written rules and provided more training on foot pursuits, after being warned in a 2005 report that officers often used dangerous tactics while chasing suspects.

By not taking those steps, Johnson and the city were "deliberately indifferent" to the rights of citizens, argued Gregg Zeff, the Pelzer family's attorney.

"The family is happy to have received a reward," Zeff said last week. "But it would have been good to send a message to the city."

Policies dictating when an officer can and cannot chase a fleeing suspect have been hotly debated in law enforcement.

After a weeklong trial, the jury in the Pelzer case deliberated for nearly three days before issuing its verdicts on Oct. 14. The jury did not explain its decision to award a judgment against only the officer and not Johnson or the city.

City attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

Three separate investigations - by the District Attorney's Office, the police Internal Affairs Division, and the Firearms Discharge Review Board - all ruled the Pelzer shooting justifiable.

Pelzer was playing dice on a known West Philadelphia drug corner when two officers approached and asked for his identification. Pelzer handed over his ID, but ran before the officers could discover that he was wanted for a probation violation.

Officer Marvin Burton, responding to a radio call about a fleeing suspect, eventually cornered Pelzer in a yard. He said Pelzer was holding his waistband, refused to show his hands, and eventually thrust out a hand while holding a cell phone.

Burton fired once, killing Pelzer.

Zeff argued that the chase showed why policies are needed. Pelzer posed no immediate threat and police knew where he lived, he said. When Burton pursued him alone, Zeff said, the officer placed himself into a dangerous situation where shooting might have been his only recourse.

City attorneys argued that the lack of a foot-pursuit policy was immaterial if the shooting was justified.

"What you must remember is that at the time he fired the shot, Officer Burton feared for his life," Armando Brigandi, one of the city's attorneys, told the jury in his opening statement. "You need to place yourself in the situation that Officer Burton was in at the time that he pulled the trigger."

He also explained to the jury why former Commissioner Johnson had refused to adopt a policy: "because it is impossible, given the nature of foot pursuits, given the ever-changing circumstances involved in these pursuits, to have a formal written policy that will cover every instance involved."

In a 2005 report, Ellen Ceisler, then the department's integrity officer, asked police to ban certain tactics employed in foot chases and to adopt a policy.

Among other recommendations, Ceisler said officers should not chase a suspect alone unless there is an immediate threat, and officers should break off a pursuit if they lose sight of the suspect.

Burton split from his partner to pursue Pelzer and continued chasing him after briefly losing sight of him in the neighborhood alleyways, according to testimony.

Johnson testified that he thought the training officers received on foot pursuits was sufficient, and he had no memory of Ceisler's report or having met with her on the issue.

Ceisler, who is now a Common Pleas Court judge, also testified during the trial. When she presented her report to department leaders, Ceisler said, she was called naive.

"I know that they were not receptive to talking about it," she testified. "They thought it was just unrealistic to try to control police foot pursuits."


Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com.

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