Allentown, Pa., police officers pointed their guns at Hector Medina-Pena and yelled a flurry of commands.
“Get your (expletive) hands up,” an officer screamed twice at the robbery suspect, the scene recorded by a patrol cruiser’s dashboard camera.
Then, “Get down on the (expletive) ground. On the ground. On the ground.”
Medina-Pena dropped to his knees with his hands up but looked confused at the commands from the men with guns. At one moment in the video, he pointed at the ground and gave officers a questioning look.
“Get down on the ground or I’m going to (expletive) shoot you,” an officer yelled. Medina-Pena dropped to all fours.
Then, Officer Joseph M. Iannetta approached Medina-Pena with his gun drawn. He lifted his right leg and kicked Medina-Pena in the face. The suspect crumpled to the ground, his jaw broken, three teeth gone.
A lawsuit filed by Medina-Pena last week says the kick was excessive force on an unarmed, defenseless person doing his best to comply with officers’ commands. The video was released to Medina-Pena’s criminal defense lawyer as part of discovery, and ultimately given to the Morning Call newspaper.
“Horrifically, while Plaintiff was positioned on all fours, and defenseless, Defendant Iannetta approached Plaintiff with his gun drawn and performed what can only be described as a ‘WWE’ style kick with his booted foot to the Plaintiff’s right side of his head and face,” the lawsuit says.
Allentown police say they have reviewed the dash-cam video of the May, 2015, felony traffic stop and determined that their officers’ actions were appropriate.
Medina-Pena had just committed an armed robbery in which he put a gun in someone’s face, Chief Keith Morris said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post. But police spotted the suspect and pursued him. The pursuit screeched to a stop at South 5th and Auburn streets, where officers began the tense and sometimes dangerous process of taking a felony suspect into custody.
“Officer Iannetta took action to protect himself, his fellow officers, and the public and take this later-convicted robber into custody by using the minimal amount of force necessary to overcome the threat,” Morris said. “Hector Medina-Pena exited the vehicle, and while walking in the direction of Officer Iannetta, reached toward his waistband.
“Hector Medina-Pena repeatedly refused to comply with Officer Iannetta’s commands throughout the course of the encounter, repeatedly reaching into the area of his waistband where he was wearing a fanny-pack,” the police chief said.
In a statement to the newspaper, Allentown City Solicitor Susan Wild described Iannetta as a “highly decorated” instructor and field training officer at the police academy with “training far above and beyond the required training.”
But Medina-Pena’s lawsuit says Iannetta has been accused of violence while on duty before. Nine citizens have complained about him, including claims of physical abuse. One suspect was injured as Iannetta made an arrest. And Iannetta has been the subject of four use-of-force investigations.
The suit notes that Iannetta was a defendant in a 2013 federal civil rights lawsuit that the city settled last month for $350,000.
Iannetta was not disciplined for any of those cases, the lawsuit says. The police chief and the city solicitor did not immediately return calls from The Post seeking comment about Iannetta’s past or the current lawsuit.
David A. Klinger, a former police officer and a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said there are not many reasons to kick a suspect in the face.
Police officers’ training on the use of force is nearly universal, Klinger said: “If you have a compliant suspect, you should not use physical force.”
“What the officer should be doing is seeking to get control of the suspect via verbal commands so we don’t have to expose ourselves to jeopardy,” Klinger said. “They should keep their distance with their guns drawn so that the suspect is in a position of disadvantage.”
Across the United States, police departments have been scrutinized amid an ongoing debate about whether officers are too quick to use force, especially against minorities. A Washington Post database of police shootings found that 776 people have been fatally shot by police in 2016. Of those, 43 were unarmed. In 2015, 991 people were killed by officers, and 93 were unarmed.
In his statement, Morris alluded to the increased scrutiny but said Iannetta’s use of force was not excessive:
“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.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Cleve R. Wootson Jr.