Delaware Settles Fatal Police Shooting for $875K

December 15, 2010

The city of Wilmington, Delaware has agreed to pay $875,000 to the family of a former Marine who was shocked repeatedly with stun guns before being fatally shot by police during the investigation of a motorcycle club.

The settlement ends a federal lawsuit stemming from the November 2006 death of Derek J. Hale, 25, who was shot three times after officers trying to arrest him repeatedly shocked him with Tasers.

In the settlement, Hale’s widow, Elaine Hale, and his estate will receive $875,000 from the city in exchange for the release of all legal claims. Hale’s parents, Dennis and Connie Hale, dismissed their claims without compensation from the city.

City and police officials defended the officers’ actions. But Thomas Neuberger, an attorney who filed the original wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Hale’s family, said the self-insured, cash-strapped city’s decision to settle was “a clear admission of the wrongdoing of its cowboy police officers.”

Derek Hale was sitting on the steps of a Wilmington row house on Nov. 6, 2006, when he was confronted by police investigating the Pagans Motorcycle Club. Hale was a member of a Virginia chapter of the Pagans, and investigators said he was involved with a Wilmington-area drug dealer who was a member of the Delaware chapter. In the two days before his death, state police had arrested several other club members and had recovered drugs, guns and explosives from the house where Hale was staying.

William Browne, the officer who shot Hale, was cleared of wrongdoing by the state attorney general’s office in 2007 and was later promoted. The U.S. Department of Justice also found no violation of federal criminal or civil rights statutes.

City officials said they agreed to the settlement to avoid the cost of further litigation in a case scheduled to go to trial in April.

“We were very confident in our case and know that our officers acted properly and professionally,” said William Montgomery, chief of staff to Wilmington Mayor James Baker.

Police chief Michael Szczerba reiterated his support for the officers involved in the shooting.

“Our officers were confronted by a subject who was wanted by the Delaware State Police for felony drug trafficking and who was reportedly known to carry a firearm,” Szczerba said in a statement issued by the city. “The officers reasonably believed that Hale could have been holding a weapon in the front pocket of his hooded sweat shirt when he refused to show his hands in response to repeated commands. In the end, witnesses saw Hale stand up, pull off a Taser wire, and with at least one hand still in his sweat-shirt pocket abruptly turn on an officer armed with only an empty Taser, who was five feet away. Under the circumstances, the decision to shoot was justified.”

Police said they found a knife with a four-inch blade and a can of pepper spray in Hale’s pants pockets.

Investigators for the attorney general’s office said in 2007 that Hale was wearing a T-shirt, two sweat shirts and a denim jacket when he was killed, and that there was no evidence that any of the three Taser darts found in his clothing directly contacted his skin. They nevertheless said Hale received seven separate electrical discharges in a span of about 73 seconds, quivering and convulsing during the shocks but able to regain his composure and pull at the wires and probes in his chest when they stopped.

Neuberger said Hale was left incapacitated and vomiting from the Tasers and unable to comply with the officers’ demands before he was shot.

“Our citizens are ill-served by poorly trained cowboys posing as police,” said Neuberger, adding that Baker has overseen a decline in professionalism within the city police department and should resign.

Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the Delaware chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped represent Hale’s widow, said Derek Hale’s death was “an untimely and unnecessary tragedy.”

The ACLU contended that police did not have probable cause to arrest Hale, and that his death was caused by the use of excessive force and failure to provide adequate training for police.

“These were issues that were not addressed by the lawsuit’s settlement and they remain a concern,” MacRae said in a statement. “The ACLU believes that the response by the Wilmington police department and city officials should not stop with the payment of the settlement, and that they should implement appropriate policy, procedures and training to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.”

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