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Lawsuit awards against Pennsylvania State Police costly to state

| Monday, July 27, 2009

When the General Assembly finally passes a budget, lawmakers will need to find an extra $6 million for state police.

The taxpayer-funded largesse won't put extra troopers on the highways or replace aging cruisers. It will pay the second installment of the agency's largest civil rights award — $12.5 million to the family of Michael Ellerbe, 12, of Uniontown, who was fatally shot by Trooper Samuel Nassan as the youth ran from a stolen sport utility vehicle Dec. 24, 2002.

A federal jury awarded Ellerbe's father $28 million in damages in a March 2008 civil rights lawsuit. Ellerbe's father agreed to a $12.5 million settlement rather than endure appeals.

The first installment on the settlement — $6.5 million — was paid immediately. The remaining $6 million is to be paid within two weeks of final passage of the 2009-10 budget.

That's not the only payout involving the state police.

A Tribune-Review analysis of lawsuit settlements found the 104-year-old police agency has been assessed about $27 million in 140 lawsuits between 1996 and 2008.

That's nearly half of the total $57 million state taxpayers coughed up to settle lawsuits and pay jury awards for 693 civil rights complaints during that period. The complaints covered allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment as well as police misconduct.

Agencies cited in complaints ranged from the Department of Aging to the Department of Transportation.

State Police Commissioner Frank E. Pawlowski said the nature of police work makes law enforcement agencies a target.

"State troopers are frequently involved in actions that result in saving lives, taking lives or having an impact on lives," Pawlowski said. "The department strives through its extensive and continuing training of troopers to limit circumstances and actions that result in lawsuits."

Even so, federal court dockets show the police agency remains the target of two dozen outstanding lawsuits.

Nassan is involved in another high-profile civil rights case. He and city police Sgt. Terry Donnelly are defendants in civil litigation in the shooting death March 15 of Nicholas Haniotakis, 33, of South Side. The officers said they fired at Haniotakis when he tried to strike them with his sport utility vehicle after a chase.

Spokesmen for the State Troopers Association did not respond to requests for comments.

Gov. Ed Rendell is concerned but not alarmed by the numbers, said his spokesman, Chuck Ardo.

"There is always a concern when state employees are accused of misconduct, no matter for which agency they happen to work," Ardo said. "The state police are most often involved in confrontational situations by the very nature of their jobs, so it is no surprise they lead in the number of allegations against them. We have confidence in the professionalism of the force but are always looking for ways to improve it."

The state police settlements covered complaints ranging from employee discrimination to wrongful deaths.

About $21 million in settlements stemmed from some of the worst black eyes the police agency has sustained. They include:

• The $12.5 million settlement in the Ellerbe shooting.

• The $6.3 million the state agreed to pay to six eastern Pennsylvania women who were sexually assaulted by former Trooper Michael Evans. The lawsuits, settled between 2001 and 2004, claimed state police failed to take adequate steps to discipline Evans despite previous complaints about his behavior. Evans is serving a five- to 10-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to corruption of minors, indecent assault, soliciting prostitution and official oppression.

• The $2.1 million paid in 2007 to Barry Laughman, 46, a mentally handicapped man whose murder conviction was overturned by DNA evidence after he spent 16 years in prison. Laughman was 24 in 1987 when state police questioned him in the rape and murder of an elderly Dauphin County neighbor. Although police said Laughman confessed to the killing, he insisted he never made that statement. Years later, DNA tests proved the semen recovered from the victim's body was not Laughman's.

Additional Information:

Paying out

Five agencies accounted for about three-quarters of the state government's $57 million in lawsuit settlements between 1996 and 2008:

State police : $27 million

State colleges and System of Higher Education : $5.9 million

Prisons and the Department of Corrections : $5.4 million

Department of Welfare : $3.3 million

Pennsylvania Department of State : $1.7 million

Source: Tribune-Review analysis of Department of General Services records

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