Trooper in ATV death twice accused of excessive force
A state police trooper suspended after using a Taser on a 15-year-old ATV driver who crashed and died was previously accused of excessive force in two separate lawsuits, although the cases against him were dismissed.
Those revelations about the state trooper, identified by a police source as Mark Bessner, come as a new $50 million lawsuit was filed Wednesday in federal court over Saturday’s incident in which Damon Grimes was killed on Detroit’s east side.
Bessner has not been charged in Grimes’ death as state police and Detroit police conduct separate investigations.
Police say Grimes was driving his ATV illegally on the road and refused a trooper’s order to stop. The trooper deployed his Taser and Grimes hit a parked pickup. Grimes later died of blunt-force injury to the head, according to the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office, which ruled the death accidental.
According to records reviewed by The Detroit News, Bessner was among several state troopers who were sued in cases in federal court and Wayne County Circuit Court for using excessive force. Both cases were later dismissed.
In a 2013 federal case, the lawsuit claimed Bessner and other state troopers spotted Martin McCurtis standing outside Sinai-Grace Hospital’s emergency room and attacked him for no reason.
“The defendants suddenly and violently seized plaintiff by tackling and throwing him to the ground,” the lawsuit said.
“Bessner repeatedly struck plaintiff’s body and gratuitously kneed him in his face and head multiple times as plaintiff was lying defenseless on the ground. The other defendants joined in the unprovoked physical assault of plaintiff.”
The federal suit further stated police sought a warrant against the man for resisting and obstructing a police officer.
“After reviewing the evidence, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office refused to authorize a warrant against plaintiff,” the lawsuit said.
In their response, the troopers’ attorneys, Joseph T. Froehlich and John G. Fedynsky, wrote: “The allegation is denied ... for the reason that it is not an accurate statement of fact and asserts an incorrect conclusion of law.
“Some or all of plaintiff’s losses and damages, if any, was caused by his own conduct or the conduct of third parties and not attributable to defendants.”
The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice in October 2014 by U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood after the parties agreed to a settlement. The terms of that settlement were not disclosed in the court filings.
Efforts to reach McCurtis for comment were unsuccessful on Wednesday. Matthew Kolodziejski, the attorney who filed the complaint, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Separately, the Wayne County suit, involving a September 2014 traffic stop in Detroit, also was dismissed.
That lawsuit alleged Bessner and other troopers chased motorist Michael Crittle after running his plate.
The lawsuit alleged when Crittle stopped, the troopers broke his passenger window and used a Taser on him before Bessner pulled him out of the window and handcuffed him.
In the suit, Crittle said troopers threw him to the ground, and he suffered a broken arm.
During a preliminary examination in the case, Bessner admitted he used the Taser on the motorist, including once after the man was in handcuffs.
“He was ordered to exit. He didn’t comply. He was Tasered multiple times until we were able to handcuff him,” said Bessner, according to court records.
That case was dismissed in January 2016 for non-service reasons.
Crittle could not be reached for comment. The attorney who represented him in the suit, Dionne E. Webster-Cox, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
The Michigan State Police Troopers Association did not respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday night.
In addition to the lawsuits, Bessner has been lauded for exemplary police work, including his role in helping save a woman’s life who was suffering from a drug overdose.
Bessner last year received the state police Lifesaving Award for an incident July 13, 2016.
Bessner, along with Trooper Jacob Liss, responded to a woman having a medical emergency. She was “unresponsive, profusely sweating and with labored breathing,” according to the Michigan State Troopers Association. Bessner determined the woman was suffering from a drug overdose.
“Bessner administered several dosages of Narcan spray. The woman fully regained consciousness shortly after receiving the last dose of Narcan. The woman was able to confirm she had injected herself with heroin. Thanks to Trooper Bessner’s quick response, the woman survived,” the release said.
Grimes died after a chase at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Rossini and Gratiot on Detroit’s east side.
The trooper was suspended Sunday for using his Taser while in a moving vehicle, state police Lt. Mike Shaw said.
“The trooper involved is on paid suspension pending the outcome of our criminal investigation,” Shaw said Wednesday. “If he is charged, it becomes unpaid.”
Both state and Detroit police have launched investigations into the matter.
“We are continuing to move forward in our criminal investigation,” Shaw said. “It would be inappropriate to comment on any civil process at this time.”
Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office spokeswoman Lisa Croff said Grimes’ death was ruled accidental.
“He died in an accident (which caused) blunt force head trauma,” said Croff, stressing the ruling has nothing to do with the police investigation into the incident. “The manner of death is that he crashed an ATV in an accident. We’re not saying why the accident happened; that’s not for us to say.”
Attorney Geoffrey Fieger is representing the Grimes family in the federal lawsuit filed Wednesday against “Trooper John Doe,” whom Fieger called “a cowboy.”
“This was a drive-by shooting,” Fieger said. “This is unacceptable behavior by a police officer. It’s beyond outrageous conduct ... it’s mind-bogglingly stupid.”
Grimes’ mother and father, Monique Grimes and John Hughes, attended a news conference held by Fieger on Wednesday but did not comment.
A protest over Grimes’ death is scheduled at 11 a.m. Friday at police headquarters downtown.
‘Normal ... to ride ATVs’
Michigan State Police have been under fire recently for pursuing motorists. After six people were killed during MSP chases in 2014-15, a state representative introduced legislation in 2015 to compel troopers to adhere to local chase policies when patrolling a community.
“When you are involved in a high-speed chase, there are a lot of possible dangers, even on open roads,” said Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, during a March 2015 hearing before the House Local Government Committee.
“... That’s where the importance of my bill comes in. Our cities need to be able to have some sort of authority over high-speed chases within city limits, because local law enforcement knows the area much better, and can reduce the chance of fatalities or injuries.”
Neeley’s proposal never made it to the House floor for a vote. Neeley couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
While it’s illegal to ride ATVs in the street, Damon Grimes’ 17-year-old sister, Dezajanai, said they are part of life for people on Detroit’s east side.
“It’s normal for people here to ride ATVs in the street,” Dezajanai said.