Jeffrey Price and Arnell Robinson died nine years, one month, and 29 days apart, both in dirt bike collisions with Metropolitan Police Department vehicles. In March 2009, witnesses say Officer Michael Pepperman struck and killed Robinson, 20, with his unmarked Ford Taurus on O Street NW. In May 2018, Price, 22, was killed in a collision with Officer Michael Pearson’s patrol SUV on Division Avenue NE.
Price is one of the men killed at the hands of MPD officers whose name local police critics repeat in their demands for reform within the department. Those voices have grown louder and attracted more attention of late, after a White officer in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, a Black man, sparking protests throughout the country. Many cities are considering or have passed police reform legislation in response.
The police actions leading up to Robinson and Price’s fatal incidents are just two examples of what attorney David Shurtz says is a pattern and practice of MPD officers using deadly force against Black men riding dirt bikes. (It is illegal to ride a dirt bike on D.C. streets.)
Shurtz represented Robinson’s family in a lawsuit filed in 2009 against the District and Pepperman. He collected about 230 sworn affidavits from dirt bike riders to support his claims. Because most of those affidavits pertained to incidents that took place after Robinson’s death, however, the judge only allowed Schurtz to use 22 as evidence of an established practice. The case settled out of court for an undisclosed amount and was dismissed in 2016.
Now, Shurtz represents Price’s family in another wrongful death lawsuit, and because Price’s death in 2018 occurred after each of the incidents recalled in those 230 affidavits, Price’s family can theoretically use all of them to bolster their case and show a pattern and practice.
Lawsuits against police officers often come with questions of qualified immunity—the legal doctrine that shields officers and other government officials from liability. House Democrats have a proposal to eliminate that protection as part of a police reform bill, but Senate Republicans see it as a “poison pill.”
But a more significant step, from Shurtz’s perspective, is to hit police departments and officers in their bank accounts.
Shurtz’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of Jeffrey Price’s mother, Denise, accuses Pearson and two other MPD officers, David Jarboe and Anthony Gaton, of negligence, assault, battery, and constitutional violations of due process and use of excessive force. Shurtz is asking the judge to award a total of $100 million in monetary damages to account for the loss of Price’s life and, separately, as punishment for the government’s alleged pattern and practice of targeting dirt bike riders.
Punitive damages are ordinarily unheard of in civil litigation against municipalities. But Shurtz believes Price’s situation represents a unique case.
Shurtz says a 2010 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton opened the door for monetary damages as punishment only in “extraordinary circumstances.” He believes Price’s death qualifies as an extraordinary circumstance when taking into consideration the District’s alleged pattern of “hitting … bikers with their government vehicles or otherwise driving them off the road into dangerous obstacles and situations,” the lawsuit says.
Instead of handing out discipline, MPD officers who “target black bikers with deadly force are routinely given promotions and pay increases which inspires other officers to target black bikers with their cruisers with impunity,” the lawsuit claims.
“When I look at the 200 witnesses attesting to the well-known practice of using police cruisers to knock off riders, it tells me the District needs to be concerned about a spectacular loss,” says Carl Messineo, a local attorney who has experience in police misconduct cases but who is not involved in Price’s case. “The allegations show an utter disregard to Black lives.”
Messineo, a co-founder of the public interest legal nonprofit Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, also points to MPD’s general orders on vehicle chases that explicitly prohibit officers from intentionally hitting another fleeing vehicle with their vehicle. That section of the order is redacted in the version MPD publishes online. Messineo provided LL with an unredacted copy.
Officer Pepperman’s involvement in both cases raises questions about the integrity of MPD’s internal review and disciplinary mechanisms.
According to Pepperman’s account of the 2009 fatal collision, he was headed east on O Street NW when he saw Robinson and two other motorbike riders coming toward him. He claimed the bikes were headed the wrong way on a one-way street, and he stopped in the middle of the roadway to allow the bikes to pass.
Pepperman claimed that Robinson sped ahead of the other two, looked back and then forward toward the police car, and then “turned the handle bars of his dirt bike to the left,” and “plant[ed] his right foot on the ground,” according to court records. His bike slid under the car, but Robinson’s momentum flung him into a parked car, Pepperman claimed.
But witnesses, including Officer Gina Leveque, Pepperman’s partner and passenger that day, dispute his description.
For starters, the vehicles were traveling on a two-way road. Robinson’s fellow dirt bike riders and an unconnected bystander said Pepperman swerved from his lane, crossed over the centerline of O Street NW, and collided with Robinson. Leveque told a crash investigator that Pepperman “did that on purpose,” though she later walked back that statement, attributing her reversal to the emotion of seeing Robinson’s crash.
“I guess I just wanted to point the finger, I guess,” Leveque told police investigators. “I don’t know. I was just really, really upset.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Pepperman, and MPD’s crash review panel determined Robinson’s death was an unavoidable accident.
In 2018, Price was riding his dirt bike on Division Avenue NE toward Fitch Place NE, where Pearson was parked, according to his family’s lawsuit. Officers Jarboe and Gaton chased Price, who, according to a police report, was traveling at 70 miles per hour.
As Price approached Fitch Place NE, the police narrative says, Pearson pulled his vehicle onto Division and spotted Price riding in the wrong lane. Pearson then pulled his vehicle forward to avoid Price. But witnesses dispute that account, saying Pearson intentionally pulled in front of Price and created “a situation where the collision with Price was unavoidable, deliberate and intentional,” the lawsuit says.
In written responses to the suit, MPD denies that Pearson acted inappropriately.
After hearing about his nephew’s collision, Jay Brown rushed to the scene. He was greeted by Pepperman, who introduced himself as a crash investigator, Shurtz says. An MPD spokesperson declined to answer any of City Paper’s questions, including whether Pepperman continued as a crash investigator, citing the ongoing litigation.
As the case continues through the court system, the D.C. Council is considering sweeping changes to police operations and protections. The Council passed emergency legislation in June that required Mayor Muriel Bowser to identify officers involved in fatal and serious incidents, as well as release body camera footage within 72 hours. The measure was retroactive to October 2014, and gave Bowser a deadline of July 1 to release old cases.
Although three officers involved in Price’s death are identified, his mother Denise Price still has not seen any video footage of the incident, Shurtz says. In response to her Freedom of Information Act request submitted shortly after her son was killed, MPD said it has 51 relevant videos, but “because the privacy rights of other individuals were unable to be protected, we could not create any clips for viewing.”
Bowser did not sign the legislation into law by the July 7 deadline, and the Council passed a revised version during its legislative meeting on the same day. The new version, which was crafted with Bowser’s input, according to the Washington Post, extends the deadline for publicly identifying officers and releasing body camera footage of deadly and serious uses of force from 72 hours to five business days. It also pushes back the deadline for Bowser to release names and body camera footage of old cases from July 1 to Aug. 15.
In addition to a FOIA request, Shurtz says Denise Price asked to see video footage of her son’s collision after the Council’s June legislation, to no avail. His next court date is July 10, when he’ll submit his request for evidence discovery. At the top of the list are the 51 videos MPD has refused to release.
“They’re long on promises and short on delivery,” Shurtz says. “It’s been two years. We still don’t have anything.”