(ALLENTOWN, Pa.) — A man who was kicked by a Pennsylvania police officer is suing Allentown city officials and members of its police department, alleging that arresting officers violated his civil rights when they used excessive force during the 2015 incident and that city and police officials attempted to cover it up.
On May 30, 2015, Allentown police officer Joseph M. Iannetta kicked Hector Medina-Pena in the head as he was on the ground on all fours after the car he was riding in was stopped by police, the lawsuit alleges. The incident was captured on dashcam video, which was obtained by ABC News.
In a statement, current Allentown Police Chief Keith Morris said Medina-Pena matched the description of an armed robbery suspect who had held up a strip club that day before getting into a car with three other individuals and driving off. “A detailed description of the getaway vehicle and the criminal suspect who displayed the weapon was broadcast, and due to diligent police work the vehicle was quickly located with the four suspects inside,” Morris said.
After the car was stopped, Medina-Pena “repeatedly refused to comply” with Iannetta’s orders and reached into the area of his waistband several times, Morris said. “Concerned about this suspect, who was reported by the victims to be armed, Officer Iannetta took action to protect himself … [taking the] later-convicted robber into custody by using the minimal amount of force necessary.”
Medina-Pena later pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to up to 10 years in state prison.
The suit states Medina-Pena was riding in the left rear seat of a Ford Explorer with three other people in the car when police signaled for the driver to pull over. Once the car was stopped, Medina-Pena “immediately” complied with Iannetta’s instructions to show his hands and exit the car, according to the complaint. He then “got down on his knees and raised his hands over his head in plain view of all police officers on scene” while the driver and other passengers did the same, the suit states.
Medina-Pena was “defenseless” when Iannetta approached him with his gun drawn and performed a “WWE”-style kick to the right side of his head and face, causing him to crumple to the ground “in extreme pain,” according to the complaint.
The kick was in “full view” of at least one of the other police officers on the scene, the suit states. As Medina-Pena lied “immobile” on the ground, officer Patrick Bull, also named in the complaint, then positioned himself on top of him, with his left knee pressing into Medina-Pena’s back and his gun pointing at the other two passengers, who were lying on the sidewalk with their hands showing, according to the complaint.
Iannetta then approached the driver of the Explorer, “who had his hands displayed as requested,” and pointed his gun at the driver’s face before “violently” ripping him out of the car and throwing him to the ground, the complaint states. Iannetta then jumped on the driver and rolled on top of him while continuing to point his gun at his face, according to the suit.
Neither Medina-Pena nor the driver resisted arrest “in any way,” the complaint states. While Medina-Pena was still on the ground with Bull on top of him and his hands pinned behind his back, Iannetta allegedly “threw his body down, knee first, directly onto the back of [Medina-Pena’s] head and face” using “all his weight and as much force as he could muster,” the lawsuit states.
“It was immediately apparent to any observer that the Plaintiff, who now laid motionless, bleeding and seriously injured, presented no threat, provided no resistance and was completely defenseless before these unwarranted criminal assaults were inflicted by Defendant Iannetta,” according to the complaint.
According to the suit, once on the ground, Medina-Pena “was immediately searched, and found not to be in possession of any weapons or contraband.”
Paramedics arrived at the scene after Medina-Pena had lain motionless on the ground for several minutes and observed “obvious and significant” injuries to his head and face, the lawsuit states. It also alleges that he suffered a fractured jaw and had three teeth knocked out, which were only held in place due to his recently installed braces. Medina-Pena was hospitalized for three days following the incident, the complaint states.
Medina-Pena will continue to require medical treatment in the future and faces some possibly permanent issues, according to the complaint.
The complaint also alleges that Iannetta had a history of violence that the Allentown Police Department was aware of, pointing specifically to a 2013 incident in which Iannetta’s partner allegedly threw a man head-first into concrete, knocking him unconscious; Iannetta then allegedly stomped and kicked the man. Iannetta was a defendant in a civil rights lawsuit from that incident, according to Medina-Pena’s suit. The city paid $350,000 to settle that case, according to Allentown newspaper The Morning Call.
Dashcam video of the incident shows police approaching the dark-colored SUV with their guns drawn as a woman walks her bike on the sidewalk next to them. Medina-Pena is seen getting out of the car with his hands up and a fanny pack at his waist. He looks back at police and appears to nod to an officer as he is given instructions, then gets on all fours on the ground.
The lawsuit accuses Bull of failing to intervene after Iannetta delivered the kick to Medina-Pena’s head. It also accuses Iannetta and Bull of filing false police reports — in which they allegedly “omitted facts” to cover up the “assault” — and accuses the police department’s internal affairs division of assisting in the alleged coverup.
Other unnamed officers referred to as John/Jane Doe were also named in the lawsuit, as well as former Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, Allentown Mayor Edwin Pawlowski and the City of Allentown.
The officers involved in the incident were “entrusted to protect the Constitutional rights of those he encountered,” the complaint, filed Thursday in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, states. Mayor Pawlowski was named in the lawsuit because he “either does, or has failed to, promulgate and enforce laws, rules and regulations concerning the operations of the Allentown Police Department,” according to the complaint.
Neither Pawlowski nor Fitzgerald conducted an “appropriate investigation” or issued discipline against the officers after the incident, according to the complaint, which also states that officers are provided “inadequate training” pertaining to the appropriate use of force and that officers “routinely” use excessive force. In addition, the complaint accuses the City of Allentown of “systematically” under-reporting citizen complaints on police abuse.
Medina-Pena is seeking an amount in excess of the $150,000 limit for arbitration in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, according to the suit.
Iannetta is a 14-year veteran of the Allentown Police Department and has training “far and beyond” what is required, said Allentown City Solicitor Susan Wild, adding that Iannetta is “highly decorated for merit and bravery.”
Iannetta’s actions have been “thoroughly reviewed” by police and city officials and were found to be appropriate under the circumstances, she said. The office of the mayor did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
Police Chief Morris also said in the statement: “In today’s society, where officers are routinely being criticized for their use of firearms in encounters with suspects, this is an incident where an officer (based on his training) used a reasonable amount of force in response to the report of an armed suspect and necessitated by Mr. Medina-Pena’s criminal actions, and took a felon into custody with minimal risk and injury to all involved.”
Medina-Pena’s suit is the latest in a string of civil rights lawsuits brought against the Allentown Police Department in the last five years, according to The Morning Call. The city has paid out $650,000 to seven of those lawsuits so far.
Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.