Attorney Bob Bennett has been bringing civil rights cases against members of the Minneapolis Police Department since 1981. The city settled the latest one last May, agreeing to pay $3.075 million to the family of a man who died after a struggle with two city police officers in 2010.
The settlement in the case of David Smith v. City of Minneapolis is second only to the $4.5 million the city paid in 2007 to one Minneapolis police officer shot by another, also a case brought by Bennett.
Smith was a 28-year-old mentally ill man who was causing a disturbance in a basketball court of the downtown YMCA. Police officers Timothy Gorman and Timothy Callahan responded to the YMCA’s call to remove Smith, using a Taser on Smith and subduing him by kneeling on his back for more than four-and-a-half minutes. Smith stopped breathing, was revived by paramedics and died a week later in a hospital. The Hennepin County medical examiner’s office ruled Smith’s death a homicide by “mechanical asphyxia” brought on by the controversial police practice of continuing to kneel on an arrestee being held in the prone restraint position.
Most of the incident was captured on video from a pen camera in one officer’s pocket and from a camera on the Taser.
“The pen camera on the officer was, I’d say, the mission critical piece of evidence,” Bennett said.
He and partner Jeffrey Storms and associate Katie Bennett worked on the case, citing Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Seeking to prove that the police department, as a local government agency, used unconstitutional practices also made it a Monell case, requiring a number of sophisticated motions. Five to seven other attorneys and support staff pitched in to work on the case.
“This was sort of a magnum opus in that it required a great number of documents,” Bennett said.
It also required a great deal of client counseling, mostly by Storms. The attorneys met regularly with Smith’s mother and siblings as well as his uncle, who served as trustee.
It was the largest police case Storms had ever worked on.
“I’ve been really fortunate to work with (Bob Bennett) on it to make significant change at the municipal level, to defend the constitution,” Storms said. “You’re happy to get out of bed and work for these people.”
Bennett said the family was very thankful to the firm.
“We hope that the death of their son and brother won’t be in vain and somebody will learn something from it,” he added. “It was a very rewarding case to work on in terms of the nonmonetary aspects. At least you feel like you’re fighting the good fight.”