Lawsuit: Tacoma police used racial profiling, excessive force against men

Two men contend in a recently filed federal lawsuit that Tacoma police violated their constitutional rights and subjected one of them, a developmentally disabled teenager, to excessive force during what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity three years ago.

Zechariah and Curtis Escalante, and their mother, Lynnda Escalante, seek undisclosed damages in a complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

The Escalantes previously put the city on notice that they were seeking as much as $5 million in damages, records show.

Tacoma police declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli, who said the city had not yet been served with a copy of the suit.

The lawsuit contends the Escalante brothers were targeted because they are black and that officers Donald Rose, Steven Miller and other unnamed officers went over the line in subduing Zechariah Escalante while they searched for a man with a gun near Oakland Playfield.

Neither of the brothers turned out to be that man.

“Despite the fact these youths had nothing to do with the prior incident at the park, despite the fact that their descriptions and numbers did not match the description of the bald, shirtless man in the park, and despite the fact they were doing nothing wrong whatsoever, and were not doing anything illegal or even suspicious, the officers chose to aggressively surround them with guns drawn, screaming and barking orders at them, before even taking the time to ask why they were (there),” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit contends Zechariah Escalante, now 19, was thrown to the ground, had his face slammed into the pavement, was kneed in the side and that police “proceeded to strike him with a Taser no fewer than eight times,” all while he was handcuffed.

“The description, by this young, disabled youth is extremely disturbing,” said Tacoma attorney Jack Connelly, whose firm is representing the Escalantes.

“Our complaint relates primarily to the manner in which these youths were mistreated, the fact that they were stopped because they are African-American and the excessive, unnecessary and brutal force used during the contact.”

Rose and Miller remain on the job. The News Tribune could not determine this week whether the officers faced any discipline as a result of the allegations raised in the lawsuit.

In court documents filed as part of a criminal case against Zechariah Escalante that arose out of the incident, county prosecutors defended the Tacoma officers’ actions, and a Pierce County judge ruled they acted reasonably during their interactions with the teen and his brother.

Police were searching for an armed man and had a reasonable belief he might have been in a car occupied by the Escalante brothers and two young women, Judge Kitty-Ann van Doorninck ruled in April 2012.

“This created a significant officer safety risk and a risk to others,” van Doorninck ruled.

The Washington State Court of Appeals later overturned that ruling, deciding the officers did not have enough probable cause to detain the brothers. Prosecutors have appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, Connelly said.

The incident occurred Oct. 2, 2011, after someone called 911 about 4:45 p.m. to report he’d seen a shirtless black male in his late teens holding a gun and running in the area of Oakland Playfield, which is not far from Center Street and Union Avenue.

Information later developed that the gunman might have interacted with an African-American female and possibly had gotten into a car, records show.

Several police officers were dispatched to the scene to investigate.

Not long after, Rose and his partner spotted two black females getting into a car in the parking lot of a nearby flower shop. One of them, in some ways, matched the description of the female seen interacting with the gunman, court records show.

Rose and his partner boxed the car in and, with guns drawn, ordered the people to get out one at a time, the records show. Curtis Escalante and the two women got out without incident, and Zechariah Escalante initially did as well.

But at one point, Zechariah Escalante, who suffers hearing loss as well as a developmental disability, stopped complying with the officers’ commands, records show.

What happened next is disputed.

Connelly said officers “pounced on” his client.

“During Zechariah’s encounter with the officers, he was brutally beaten and suffered severe physical injuries,” the Escalantes’ lawsuit contends. “The officers’ actions were egregious, excessive and well outside the standards that police officers must follow when searching and seizing indivduals.”

Police testified during the criminal case that they used standard tactics to subdue an uncooperative person they thought might be armed with a handgun, including a “straight arm bar takedown,” records show.

Miller testified he zapped Zechariah Escalante once with his Taser as the teen struggled with officers and refused to obey commands. Escalante submitted to the officers at that point and was handcuffed, police contended during the criminal hearing.

Officers later allegedly found marijuana in Zechariah Escalante’s pocket, and he was charged as a juvenile with drug possession and obstructing an officer. That case still is being litigated.

Curtis Escalante and one of females were released at the scene. The other female had been reported as missing in Oregon and was taken into custody, records show.

Connelly wrote in his lawsuit that the Escalante brothers are members of a prominent Tacoma family. Their grandparents are Curtis and Elinor Montgomery, founders of what is now known as Greater Christ Temple Church and the Oasis of Hope Center.

Curtis Escalante had a criminal record at the time of the incident, having been convicted of attempted burglary in 2009, court records show.

“I don’t think that’s relevant to the issues of the stop and the search-and-seizure,” Connelly said.