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Under the Rug in Inglewood

Fired Inglewood Police Officer Jeremy Morse appears to be District Attorney Steve Cooley’s problem for now, as prosecutors prepare to retry him on brutality charges in the videotaped beating of teenager Donovan Jackson. Critical mistakes by prosecutors ended with a hung jury last July.

But Morse is also Inglewood’s problem. Costly civil settlements, attorneys’ fees and civil rights lawsuits charging illegal law-enforcement practices continue to plague city officials, who cleared Morse despite repeated complaints for more than two years before the Jackson incident in 2002 forced them to fire him.

One federal civil rights case in particular offers a glimpse into the city’s attempts, and a federal judge’s willingness, to keep Morse and a rash of citizen complaints below the radar. “I went to court, because for the first time I thought someone was listening,” says Patricia Surjue, her voice trembling more than two years after her run-in with Morse. She is referring to a settlement hearing before U.S. District Judge James Otero on October 23. “The court should be a place where dignity is not marred. Yet it seems like a business for everyone involved.”

According to a transcript of the hearing, Surjue agreed that day to settle her lawsuit against the city for $470,000 — more than half of which goes to her lawyers. However, she says she settled under duress after informing her lawyers and the judge she wanted a public trial. The city of Inglewood, which has yet to approve public funds for the settlement, wants her to sign a confidentiality agreement that prevents her from speaking publicly, her lawyer says. Inglewood interim city attorney Emmerline Foote did not return calls for comment.

But Surjue has refused to sign, although the hearing transcript offers Otero the authority to execute the settlement based on her verbal agreement. “When I turned to the law, I was told to keep quiet,” Surjue says, disappointed in her own attorneys and dissatisfied with the process. “I was paralyzed out of fear. I’m supposed to challenge this judge, who was appointed by the president?” Otero did not return calls for comment.

 

On the night of October 20, 2001, Surjue was in her bedroom on the second floor of her Inglewood apartment when there was a knock at the door. Officers Morse and Bijan Darvish were there. It was time for Surjue’s ex-husband, Steven Surjue, to pick up one of their two sons for his visitation, and he had called the police. Just a day earlier, a different pair of Inglewood officers had visited Surjue at her home without incident in response to complaints from her ex-husband that she was not respecting his visitation rights.

Surjue, 39, is a U.S citizen born in Jamaica. She works for the Department of Homeland Security as an adjudication officer reviewing requests for benefits sought under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Steven Surjue is in the U.S. Army and is now stationed in Iraq.

According to both the police report from that night and Surjue’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court in August 2002, her oldest son, Stephen, age 12 at the time, answered the door and told the officers his mother was asleep. While he went upstairs to wake her, Morse and Darvish entered the apartment.

Surjue’s version of events, which is contained in Judge Otero’s order of September 2 granting summary judgment in her favor, states that as she came down the stairs, she asked Morse and Darvish what they were doing in her house. Her reaction prompted Morse to push her son aside and rush up the stairs toward her, her complaint states. Surjue further alleges that Morse grabbed her forcefully, threw his body weight against her and twisted her arm as he shoved her down the stairs. Otero ruled that Morse and Darvish illegally entered Surjue’s home and illegally seized her in violation of the Fourth Amendment and the California Constitution.

On October 23, he then ordered the city of Inglewood to pay $470,000 to settle the case, which is not yet final. As is usually the case in police-misconduct cases, the city successfully sought Otero’s order to seal a number of documents pertaining to its internal investigation of Morse and Darvish.

The police report signed by Darvish on October 20, 2001, states that Surjue was aggressively flailing her arms and that Morse used a “firm grip” as he escorted her down the stairs. In a declaration filed with the court, Darvish later stated that “Morse lost his grip of Surjue’s arm as she continued to swing her arms. Officer Morse then grabbed Ms. Surjue’s wrists and, out of concern for our safety, the safety of her children and the safety of Ms. Surjue herself, she was handcuffed.” (Darvish was charged in 2002 with filing a false police report in the Donovan Jackson case. He was acquitted last July and remains on the Inglewood force. The same jury deadlocked 7-5 on whether Morse was guilty of excessive force.)

 

Surjue, who is 5-foot-5 and weighs 125 pounds, told the court she received blunt trauma to her back, buttocks, chest and stomach. She claims that her children were forced to witness her in handcuffs for an hour until Inglewood Sergeant Dennis Brown, a defendant in the case, arrived and searched her house for guns.

Morse at one point was so close to her face, as he allegedly told her to “shut up,” that he spit on her as he told her he didn’t care if “she were the president of the United States; she was going to jail,” according to Surjue’s statement filed with the court on October 16.

According to Surjue’s damage claim, in addition to humiliation and emotional trauma, she suffered a fractured coccyx and has become incontinent. Her children, including the youngest, Gareth, age 5 at the time, an asthma sufferer, remain traumatized, she claims.

“I raise my children to be supportive of the police,” Surjue says. “I never in all my life walked in front of the law. But how can I get my children to adhere to the laws of society after this? What am I to tell a child who sees police on the side of the road and fears for the safety of the person they have stopped?”

After the incident, Surjue was treated in the emergency room at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital and went to the Inglewood police station. There, she said Watch Commander John Knapp, also a co-defendant, told her to go home and forget the whole incident, before reluctantly giving her an officer-complaint form to fill out and advising her to return it only to him, as others would dispose of it.

“I felt like a cockroach,” Surjue says.

By the time the Donovan Jackson case made headlines in July 2002, Surjue had hired Mann & Cook. The law firm submitted a formal complaint to Police Chief Ronald Banks, another defendant, along with Mayor Roosevelt Dorn, on February 6, 2002. On January 28, 2003, Banks informed Surjue that her complaint was unfounded.

His finding was one of 11 such findings by the Inglewood Police Internal Affairs Division regarding complaints against Morse in the 31 months before the Jackson incident, according to documents filed in federal court, which describe complaints ranging from excessive force to harassment to false arrest.

Meantime, according to co-counsel Cynthia Anderson-Barker, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office interviewed Surjue and her oldest son in connection with its investigation of the Jackson incident. Surjue “cooperated fully,” Anderson-Barker says. Yet no criminal charges were brought against Morse for allegedly abusing Surjue.

 

Surjue says a civil rights lawsuit was her only way to find justice. “I was hoping my case would pave the way to justice for people who because of their social class or economic situation are not believed.”

Once in court, Surjue was disappointed with the way she was treated. First of all, she does not want to remain silent. Anderson-Barker says she has asked the court to lift a confidentiality provision contained in the settlement agreement. She declined to comment further.

But Surjue also wants the public to hear what she has been through. “I urinate on myself,” she says. “I want to be able to stand up and say that’s what [Morse] did to me.”

Above all, she says she worries for her safety in Inglewood and that of her children. She would like to be able to afford to move them, but the settlement she has been offered — $15,000 for each child earmarked for college tuition, $190,000 for her, $250,000 for her attorneys — just won’t cut it, she says.

“I want to take my children out of the place where they were traumatized,” she says. “The concerns I have for my children seem secondary to getting this case off someone’s calendar.”


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