Fired police officer accused of excessive force in suit

A Greensboro police officer fired after making repeated allegations of discrimination against the department related to its handling of an internal investigation into an excessive force complaint is being sued by the civilian who brought the original complaint.

Terrence Lipscomb alleges that Office Joseph Pryor kicked him in the abdomen while he was handcuffed and offering no resistance during an incident in January 2009. The lawsuit states that Lipscomb was diagnosed with severe injury to his pancreas as a result of being kicked and had to undergo multiple stays at Cone hospital.

“I’m a hundred percent [confident] of being acquitted,” Pryor said in an interview today. “I don’t see any way, shape or form I could be found guilty since I had no contact with the guy. It was already proven through the criminal investigation and also through the internal affairs investigation that I did nothing wrong procedurally. I’m blessed to have witnesses there who can state everything I did from beginning to end.”

Michael Schlosser, who is representing the plaintiff, declined to comment.

Pryor is being sued in his individual and official capacities. The city, along with the police department, is a codefendant in the lawsuit. Pryor was vindicated of wrongdoing after the department investigated him criminally and administratively for the incident. The professional standards division initially ruled that the charge was not sustained, but the finding was changed to unfounded on appeal.

“It’s always been our policy that we won’t make any comment on the journalistic record,” said Jim Clark, an assistant city attorney who is handling the case for the city. “We have to save that for in the court.”

Then-City Manager Rashad Young upheld Pryor’s termination in October 2010 after making the determination that the officer had violated the department’s truthfulness and malicious criticism and gossip directives. Pryor was one of four officers, including former Capt. Charles Cherry, who were fired after accusing the department of racial discrimination and retaliation.

“A police officer has the ability to deprive a person of life, liberty and property based in large part on the credibility of their word,” Young wrote in the termination letter. “Accordingly, police officers must be absolutely truthful in all matters. An officer whose truthfulness is at issue is unfit to exercise the powers vested in the police department. It has been the department’s practice to terminate officers found to have been untruthful. In addition, your accusations against the [professional standards division] were malicious in that they were clearly untruthful and they tended to impair the operations of the department.”

Pryor has repeatedly denied kicking Lipscomb, asserting that he could not have done so because he fell during the chase and ended up being off the job for five months with a strained medial collateral ligament of the knee. Pryor, who is black, filed a grievance about the department’s investigation of him claiming that Lipscomb had not been able to provide a description of him as the assailant — a matter of dispute — and contending that the investigation should have been terminated once one white officer took responsibility for pinning the subject with his knee and another acknowledged hitting him in the shoulder with his hand.

As reported previously in YES! Weekly, police had been monitoring Smith Homes for open-air drug sales when Lipscomb was spotted tossing something on the ground. Police decided to use the infraction as an opportunity to discover whether he was holding drugs. Cpl. Jay Atkins was patting Lipscomb down when he bolted. Atkins, Pryor and Officer HW Cox gave chase.

Cox is heard in an audio recording telling professional standards investigator Sgt. Mike Loy that he saw Pryor “hit the subject with his two hands” during the chase, causing both the officer and the suspect to fall to the ground. Cox said soon afterward he watched Atkins come over and jump on Lipscomb. Atkins told Loy he pinned Lipscomb to the ground by kneeling with one knee on the suspect’s back and the other on the ground.

Cox said when he caught up with Atkins and Lipscomb, the suspect had placed his hands under his stomach so that the arresting officers could not handcuff him, Cox used a method prescribed in training that is known as super scapular strikes to bring Lipscomb into compliance. Translated into plain English, Cox reportedly hit Lipscomb in the shoulder blades to make him pull his arms out.

“I hit him with the super scapular strikes,” Cox is heard saying in the recording. “I issued the strikes and his arms came out, and we got him cuffed.” Cox adds that a number of officers “piled up on” Lipscomb “pretty deep.”

Even though Atkins acknowledged placing his knee on Lipscomb’s back and Cox candidly discussed hitting him in the shoulder blades, the interviews remained focused on Lipscomb’s allegation that Pryor kicked him in the stomach.

Cpl. Cheryl Cundiff, a criminal investigator, interviewed civilian witness Pamela Haizlip and her son, Jermaine Hayes, who both implicated Pryor. Cundiff wrote in an investigative report that “after interviewing Ms. Haizlip and her son, their stories proved unreliable. The information they provided was inconsistent with the facts.”

Cox disputed Haizlip’s account in an interview with Cpl. Jack Steinberg, one of the administrative investigators.

“I don’t know what she’s saying because [Pryor] was on the ground holding his knee,” Cox said. “You might want to talk to her about that because she’s lying to you…. Pryor had no contact with him at all. The only ones who had any contact with him at all is me and Jay.”

Cox stated unequivocally in response to Steinberg’s questions that he did not observe Pryor kicking Lipscomb.

Young, the former city manager, acknowledged in a 2010 interview that Cox and Atkins took responsibility for physical contact with Lipscomb, but said considering that Lipscomb’s description fit Pryor, it would not have been appropriate for investigators to change the focus of their investigation. He added, “It turns out that the citizen didn’t tell the truth.”

Young upheld Pryor’s termination on the basis of a finding that Pryor was untruthful in asserting that his signature was forged on a notice of administrative investigation.

Pryor said he received a “right to sue” letter in December from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission validating his allegations of racial discrimination, harassment and hostile work environment against the police department. Pryor has a 90-day window to file suit, and said he intends to pursue the claim.

Pryor said Lipscomb’s lawsuit poses a hardship on him because he has to hire a lawyer to defend himself in his individual capacity, but believes his ultimate exoneration and an airing of the facts will bolster his claim against the city.

“Now the city can’t keep it on the hush: It’s going to be in court,” Pryor said. “They’re going to have to defend me because the city changed [the finding] to unfounded.”

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