Black store owner reports robbery, gets punched by officer

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama liquor store owner has sued after a police officer responding to a robbery call at his store punched him in the face and broke his jaw in March 2020.

The Decatur Daily reports that Kevin Penn sued the city of Decatur and police officer Justin Rippen on March 11 in federal court. Penn is Black and Rippen is white.

The suit alleges the incident is an example of systematic use of “excessive force” by the Decatur Police Department that the city often ignores.

The lawsuit alleges Penn’s constitutional rights were violated by illegal seizure, false arrest and excessive force, seeking money damages.

City Attorney Herman Marks said Thursday his department hasn’t yet received the lawsuit and declined comment. Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling said he regrets a lawsuit has been filed but referred questions to Marks.

The lawsuit alleges the city regularly receives complaints that officers “react with unjustifiable violence and false charges when a citizen speaks up or otherwise asserts his rights as an American citizen.”

The suit also accuses officers of “using common charges like obstructing governmental operation, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest” against local citizens.

“It is well known in the Decatur legal community that Decatur officers frequently use these charges, commonly referred to as POP (p— off police) charges, without a legal basis,” the lawsuit states.

Penn had trapped a shoplifter with an electronic lock and the suspect was lying on the ground, with Penn holding him at gunpoint. Surveillance video shows Penn unloading his gun as police arrive. The video appears to show Penn setting the gun magazine down as the officers approach.

An officer walked past the suspect and told Penn to put down his weapon. Penn refused saying, “I have a right to have my gun,” according to body camera video.

But police said in 2020 they believed Penn was reloading the gun. An officer, who has been identified as Rippen, then appears to punch Penn. Rippen and two other officers wrestled Penn to the ground and handcuffed him, the video shows. Penn was arrested and charged with obstructing a robbery investigation.

Penn’s lawyer, Hank Sherrod III, said using the obstructing governmental operations charge “is standard procedure for most police jurisdictions and 100% used in north Alabama.”

The lawsuit says city officials failed to ensure officers were properly trained and supervised.

City leaders were aware of numerous situations “in which citizens were subjected to unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests and uses of force but took no action to investigate and discipline officers,” the lawsuit says.

Penn spent six weeks with his jaws wired shut as he recovered.

Sherrod said the misdemeanor charges against Penn are still pending.

“I don’t know why they’re still active or they haven’t set a court date,” Sherrod said.

Sherrod said Penn “promptly” filed regarding the assault and false arrest complaint after he was punched “and the city did nothing. Mr. Penn hasn’t heard from the city to this day.”

Rippen wasn’t disciplined, the Penn lawsuit says. No investigation began until the video became public in June 2020, three months after it happened.

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