Lawsuits filed against fired Detroit police officers
Southfield — The fallout from a Detroit cop's racially insensitive Snapchat video continued Friday with an attorney announcing two lawsuits against the city and its police department.
During a press conference in his Southfield office, attorney Geoffrey Fieger painted a picture of a department that has ignored racist cops and allowed them to remain on the police force — an allegation Chief James Craig denied.
One of Fieger's lawsuits accuses former Detroit police officer Gary Steele of "viciously and savagely" breaking a black woman's arm during a May 2018 arrest. Fieger on Friday played an officer's body camera video that captured the incident.
The second lawsuit focuses on the alleged actions by Steele and his former partner Michael Garrison, which were captured on a Snapchat video. The video showed the officers on Jan. 29 pulling over African American motorist Ariel Moore for an expired license registration.
Steele and Garrison, both of whom worked for years at the 6th Precinct in northwest Detroit, were fired for their alleged roles in the video. The officers, both of whom are named in the lawsuit, impounded Moore's vehicle, and the Walmart employee declined a ride home during the frigid weather.
Video posted to Steele's Snapchat account shows Moore walking home as he says "priceless" and "bye Felicia" with caption tags that read, "What black girl magic looks like," and "celebrating Black History Month."
Garrison, Steele's partner, is allegedly heard on the video saying "walk of shame."
After the video surfaced, Craig ordered an internal affairs investigation, which is ongoing, and an "environmental audit" of the 6th Precinct, which found a "racially tone deaf" culture at the precinct, particularly on Steele and Garrison's afternoon shift.
Attempts by The Detroit News to contact Steele and Garrison have been unsuccessful.
Both officers are appealing their dismissals, Detroit Police Officers Association president Craig Miller said Friday:.
"That's part of the contract," Miller said. "The officers get due process."
Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said Friday in a written statement: “As Chief Craig announced last month, the two officers involved in this incident were terminated and are no longer with the Detroit Police Department."
Garcia declined further comment, citing the pending litigation.
During his press conference Friday, Fieger denounced the "intolerable, invidious racially motivated assaults and other attacks upon my clients."
Steele “should never have been on the force at the time he was engaging of the activities in this lawsuit," the attorney said.
"This isn’t an isolated incident," Fieger said. "They keep happening over and over again."
In one of the lawsuits announced Friday, Fieger wrote: "(The) City of Detroit and DPD permitted and allowed Defendant Steele to remain on its police force as an armed officer with a known history for assaultive violence.
"(The city and police department) were also well aware of the systematic, ongoing and ratified racism that has permeated the City's police department for years," the suit says.
Craig said Friday he "rejected" the notion that his department has ignored racist cops.
"I can't speak to what went on before I got here, but to say we ignored racism just isn't factual," Craig said. "As soon as I heard there were possible racial issues, I established the CORE (Committee on Race and Equality) program.
"There's a narrative out there that I'm somehow ignoring racism, but I'm the one who established CORE," Craig said. "Any time we've uncovered allegations of racial bias or any other allegations, we've never hesitated to initiate investigations and take the appropriate action."
Fieger pointed out that Steele was charged in 2008 with assaulting his girlfriend. "He was convicted of those offenses; nonetheless he was allowed to continue on the police force," Fieger said.
Craig said Steele was fired after that incident, but said an arbitrator gave him the job back.
"That was out of the department's hands," Craig said. "He certainly didn't get his job back because the department was ignoring racism; that was an arbitrator's decision."
Both lawsuits filed by Fieger seek "in excess of $25,000" in damages. While both suits were filed in Wayne County Circuit Court, Fieger said Friday he may file federal claims as well.
One of the suits alleges that on May 31, 2018, Elaine Murriel, who has a concealed pistol license, fired shots at a woman who was trying to run her down with a car. Steele was among the officers who responded to the scene.
"Steele observed and took note (Murriel) was a young African American female," the lawsuit said. According to the suit, Steele informed Murriel she was under arrest, and told her to put her hands behind her back.
The lawsuit claims Murriel was still holding her infant son, and she asked if she could hand the boy to relatives who were standing nearby.
"Plaintiff asked Officers why she was being arrested and going to jail, and again asked if she could hand her son over to family members," the suit said. Steele asked fellow officer James Corsi "to physically hold Plaintiff's arms and hands," the lawsuit said.
"Once the child was snatched from Plaintiff, Defendant Steele pushed Plaintiff up against her vehicle and violently grabbed Plaintiff's arms," the lawsuit said. "Plaintiff began screaming in pain, as Steele was viciously and savagely bending her left arm backward."
The woman's arm was broken during the incident, according to the lawsuit. "The entire gut-wrenching event was captured on video by Officer Corsi's body camera," the suit said.
The shaky video shows Murriel arguing with Steele, asking why she's being arrested. Steele is seen holding her forearms, and she appears to wrestle with the officer.
"Stop resisting," Steele says. "You don't want to do that."
Murriel is seen pulling away, and then the wobbly video shows a struggle. "Let me go," Murriel says before screaming. "Oh my God, you broke my arm," she says.
Todd Weglarz, an attorney at Fieger Law who is handling Murriel's case, said she was taken to the hospital and treated for her injury before sitting in jail for four days. She was released with no charges filed, he said.
Murriel, a nurse's assistant, has been unable to work since the incident, Weglarz said.
Fieger said Friday he asked Murriel and Moore to refrain from addressing the media at the press conference.
"I’ve asked them not to talk," Fieger said. "It’s best we address this through the videos."