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Tony Timpa died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for 14 minutes. A court originally denied his family the right to sue.

Civil rights attorneys say that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals – which hears appeals from federal courts in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana – is where righteous police misconduct cases go to die.

But earlier this month, the Fifth Circuit issued a decision in a case, Timpa v. Dillard, that offers renewed hope that people whose constitutional rights have been violated can get justice in court.

Tony Timpa called the Dallas police in August 2016 to ask for help. The 32-year-old, white, college-educated executive was off the medication he usually took for anxiety and schizophrenia, as he told the police dispatcher.

But when five Dallas police officers arrived on the side of the road where Timpa was, they did not give him the help he needed. Instead, they handcuffed him behind his back, zip-tied his feet, and Officer Dustin Dillard put his knee and bodyweight on Timpa’s back.

© Rosabel Rosalind

In the early morning hours of September 2, 2012, twenty-three-year old Mario Romero and his sister’s boyfriend, Joseph Johnson, pulled up to his family’s home in Vallejo, California—a city of about 120,000 people thirty miles north of Oakland. At around the same time, Vallejo officers Sean Kenney and Dustin Joseph drove by. Kenney reportedly thought Romero’s white Thunderbird looked similar to a car that had recently been involved in a drive-by shooting.

Romero and Johnson had nothing to do with the shooting. But the officers stopped near Romero’s car, shined a spotlight on the men, and yelled at them to put their hands up. The officers claimed that Romero got out of the car and reached into his waistband for a gun. But Romero’s family, watching from their living room window, saw the officers open fire into the Thunderbird as the men sat in their car, hands raised.

Officer Kenney discharged his weapon so many times that he needed to reload; at one point he climbed onto the hood of the Thunderbird and shot repeatedly at the men through its front windshield. Johnson was shot but survived. Romero died at the scene, with thirty gunshot wounds to his head, neck, and torso.

Romero was one of six people killed by Vallejo police officers in 2012, and one of three men Officer Sean Kenney killed over a five-month period—all three apparently had their hands up in surrender when they were shot. Officer Kenney may sound like a particularly bad apple, but in the Vallejo Police Department he fit right in. Officer Kenney was part of a group known locally as the Fatal 14—fourteen officers out of the approximately 100 on the force who had been involved in more than one fatal shooting. The names of these fourteen officers can be found in virtually every use-of-force report, lawsuit, or misconduct allegation against Vallejo police between 2010 and 2020. But, during that decade, none of the Fatal 14 were criminally charged, disciplined, or fired. Several, including Kenney, were promoted. In fact, the Fatal 14 celebrated shootings at bars and backyard barbecues by bending the tips of their badges and called their modified star a “Badge of Honor.” Although Vallejo officials initially denied that officers bent their badges after shootings, several former Vallejo officers have now confirmed the existence of that ritual and at least seven Vallejo officers’ badges have been seen with bent tips—including Kenney’s. In 2019, Captain John Whitney, a twenty-year veteran of the department, raised concerns about the badge bending and pushed for an investigation. Instead, Captain Whitney was fired.

Between 2010 and 2020, scores of lawsuits have been filed against Vallejo officers at the city. Although several tell of shootings by police officers, may more reveal gratuitous force sued during routine stops and arrests—of officers punching and kicking people in the head; slamming people into the concrete and against patrol car doors; and tasing people when they posed little or no threat. But, as of yet, the City of Vallejo has escaped legal responsibility for the violence inflicted by its officers. As Chapter 6 of SHIELDED shows, the Supreme Court’s decisions limiting municipal liability are a key reason why.

Garrison v. Bautista Complaint (3.8.13)

Leiva v. Vallejo Police Department Complaint (5.28.13)

Johnson v. Vallejo Summary Judgment Decision

© Rosabel Rosalind

In the village of Briarcliff Manor, a tony suburb outside New York City, everybody knew Clay Tiffany. Growing up in the 1960s, Tiffany was a Briarcliff Manor High School basketball legend; his name is still etched on a plaque in the trophy case that commemorates the school’s thousand-point scorers. By the time I met Tiffany, in 2002, he was in his fifties, and Briarcliff Manor residents knew him as the village gadfly.

Over six feet tall, white, and with an unruly crown of curly red hair, Clay Tiffany spent his days as a self-proclaimed independent journalist, uncovering local practices he considered unfair or unlawful and complaining about them to local officials and at village council meetings. Tiffany also shared the fruits of his investigative labor on his remarkably named public access television show, Dirge for the Charlatans.

On a March afternoon in 1997, Tiffany was pulled over by a Briarcliff Manor police officer he did not recognize. The officer, Nick Tartaglione, had recently been hired by the department. With bulging muscles and a deep tan, Tartaglione stuck out as much as Tiffany did in Briarcliff Manor. According to Tiffany, Tartaglione approached his car and said, through the open window, that he heard Tiffany like moulinyans—derogatory Italian slang for Black people—and then said, “I’m connected with the Mob. I can have you taken care of any time I want.” Feeling threatened, Tiffany got out of his car and, standing several feet away, said that he was afraid of Tartaglione and was going to flag down the next car he saw and give the driver the name of a friend to call. When Tiffany got a car to stop and started speaking with the driver, Officer Tartaglione grabbed Tiffany, slammed him into the police car, and handcuffed him.

Tiffany quickly turned his investigative attentions to Tartaglione. And it turned out there was a lot to investigate. Tiffany learned that Tartaglione had beaten up people while employed as an officer in neighboring jurisdictions, and had left those jobs under suspicious circumstances. Tiffany then started reporting what he found out about Tartaglione on Dirge for the Charlatans. That apparently got under Tartaglione’s skin.

Over the next two and a half years, Officer Tartaglione assaulted Tiffany three more times—the assaults growing more extreme with every encounter. The final time, Tartaglione maced Tiffany, and punched and kicked him, yelling “You can’t tell lies about me on your television show!” Officer Tartaglione broke Tiffany’s orbital bone and several ribs, landing him in the hospital.

Tiffany sued Tartaglione and the Village of Briarcliff Manor. During litigation, Tartaglione offered to settle the claims against him for $200,000. Soon thereafter, we wrote a letter to defense counsel, explaining that Tiffany wanted to know where the money was coming from—Tartaglione himself, or the village. I assumed the money was coming from Tartaglione; the village had fired Tartaglione and was arguing during litigation that his assaults of Tiffany were outside the scope of his employment. But in the end, after Tiffany had accepted the money, Briarcliff Manor revealed that its insurer had written the check. I was shocked. Why would Briarcliff Manor’s insurer pay six figures to settle a case against an officer they had fired? Why would Briarcliff Manor’s insurer pay to settle a case against an officer they argued was acting outside the scope of their employment? Chapter 10 of SHIELDED helps explain why.

Tiffany v. Tartaglione Fourth Amended Complaint

Tiffany Letter To MJ Re Settlement Information (9.15.03)

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