Federal jury clears York City officer of excessive-force claims

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
A video showing a physical confrontation between a York City police officer and York City resident Melissa Dyann Penn on July 3, 2017, was widely shared on social media.
(Video courtesy of Facebook)

A federal jury has cleared a York City police officer of wrongdoing against a woman he punched repeatedly in the face as she resisted arrest outside a city bar in July 2017.

Melissa Penn, 24, sued Officer Galen Detweiler and York City in federal court in 2018, alleging Detweiler used excessive force in arresting her and that York City was negligent for hiring him.

About a year ago, a federal judge granted York City's argument that it be removed as a defendant, and Detweiler remained as the sole defendant in the civil lawsuit.

On Monday, jurors took "barely a half-hour" to exonerate Detweiler of the three allegations against him, according to York City solicitor Don Hoyt. The trial lasted five days in Harrisburg's federal courthouse, according to court records.

"When he punched her in the face, she had her arms around his neck and was strangling him," Hoyt said on Wednesday. "He's entitled to use force to meet force."

Jurors found that Detweiler didn't violate Penn's constitutional rights by using excessive force, that he didn't commit battery against her, and that he didn't commit intentional infliction of emotional distress against her, according to the trial's verdict slip.

Viral video: Hoyt said a short video of the end of the encounter, which was shot by a civilian and went viral online, didn't capture the gravity of the struggle between Detweiler and Penn.

"It was a very serious situation. If she had caused him to black out, his weapon was available (for the taking)," Hoyt said, adding Penn continued to resist and choke Detweiler until he punched her several times in the face, at which point he was able to arrest her.

York City Police Officer Galen Detweiler returns to his squad car after stopping a driver who violated pedestrian safety during an enforcement detail at the intersection of North George Street and Clarke Avenue in York City, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert

Detweiler had tried various ways to take Penn into custody, all of which were unsuccessful, according to Hoyt, who said Penn was kicking Detweiler before wrapping her arms around his neck.

"This is 2 o'clock in the morning and a difficult situation with lots of people all around. This is an issue that he and other officers face every single night," Hoyt said. "It occasionally means (an officer) has to use force to keep the peace.

'Validation of tactics': "We were all looking for validation of the tactics (Detweiler) used — and was required to use," Hoyt said. "And the jury agreed with us."

More:Lawsuit against York City officer dropped, 2nd suit heading to federal trial in October

More:York City dropped from excessive force lawsuit

Penn's attorney, Leticia Chavez-Freed, said she and her client were surprised and disappointed by the verdict but said that's OK.

"We are so glad Melissa was able to have her day in court," the attorney said. "That was a really important part to her healing as a human being."

Chavez-Freed said the jury's decision won't affect her law firm's plans to keep representing people who maintain they have been mistreated by police.

"We're not going anywhere," she said.

Detweiler returned to active duty a short time after the incident — after the police department did an internal review that determined he acted appropriately, according to then-Police Chief Wes Kahley.

The background: Penn was arrested in July 2017 after an altercation with Detweiler outside Pandora's Box, a bar at 466 E. Market St.

In December 2017, Penn pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and defiant trespass. As a result of her negotiated plea agreement, a felony charge of aggravated assault was dismissed.

Melissa Dyann Penn

She was sentenced to two years of probation, with the first three months on house arrest, and was ordered to never go back to Pandora's Box.

Detweiler and Officer Bradley Engle were stationed outside Pandora's Box about 1:40 a.m. July 3, 2017, to make sure the bar closed safely, according to officials.

More:Woman punched in face by York City cop now closer to trial

More:House arrest, probation for woman punched in face by York City cop

Detweiler testified at Penn's preliminary hearing in 2017 that his attempts to get her handcuffed were failing but that his second attempt to take her to the ground succeeded.

"I felt Miss Penn wrap her arms around my neck," he said, adding he feared he was losing his tactical advantage so he struck her four times in the face "in an effort to daze and disorient her."

Security footage: Hoyt said security footage from Pandora's Box — both outside and inside the bar — were critical.

"The reason we won this case is because the bar had several cameras," he said. "We were able to go frame by frame of what was happening and ask officer Detweiler what he was doing and why."

Detweiler was a rookie officer at the time who hadn't yet been assigned a body camera, and Engle's body camera didn't show the full encounter, according to Hoyt.

Jurors were able to watch footage of Penn trying to fight her way through a crowd to return to the bar, despite her father and others urging her to go home, and also footage of the struggle, the attorney said.

Hoyt said the trouble with street videos is that they often don't provide any context.

Plain View Project: A research website called the Plain View Project, which compiled public Facebook posts from individual police officers, found a 2014 post from Detweiler in which he wrote, "Bucket list: Punch a guy so hard he poops himself." The post had a checkmark next to the statement.

In a reply comment, he explained that he punched the man because the man was physically assaulting Detweiler's police partner.

At the time, Detweiler was a Baltimore City police officer.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

>>Like what you’re reading? Not a subscriber? Click here for full access to The York Dispatch’s hard-hitting news, local sports and entertainment.