Chester basketball coach sues city, claiming police brutality

chester high school

Chester High School (Emma Lee/WHYY)

An assistant basketball coach at Chester High School has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Chester City and five police officers, claiming they wrongly arrested and shocked him with a stun gun after he hit a parked car last year.

James Dennis, 46, who also works as a social worker, complained of excessive force, malicious prosecution and conspiracy in the lawsuit filed Monday.

The suit stems from a fender-bender Dennis had May 28, 2016, when he drove to East 23rd Street near Chestnut to visit a friend, according to the complaint. He hit a parked car, then parked his own car to try tracking down the owner of the vehicle he hit. Two officers arrived and ordered him to sit in the rear of a police cruiser while they investigated, according to the complaint.

Dennis refused, explaining to the cops he is “severely claustrophobic” and also questioning why he’d be put in a locked patrol car for a fender-bender, according to the complaint. Other officers arrived, and they wrestled him into the cruiser, with one repeatedly zapping Dennis with a stun gun, according to the complaint.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Police then charged Dennis with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and related traffic citations.

He beat the case twice: Delaware County Magisterial District Judge Wilden H. Davis dismissed the charges in August 2016 after several continuances — but refiled charges two weeks later, and then dismissed them again in October 2016, according to the complaint and court records. Davis didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Dennis is seeking more than $225,000 for injuries including “serious permanent neurological damage,” missed work time, attorneys’ fees, and punitive damages.

Aigner Cleveland, a Chester spokeswoman, said the city hasn’t been served with the lawsuit yet, but she can’t comment on pending litigation anyway. Dennis didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The city has a policy of such unconstitutional arrests, according to Brian J. Zeiger, Dennis’ attorney, pointing to four other federal lawsuits that name as defendants the officers who arrested Dennis. In those cases, the plaintiffs made similar allegations of improper arrests and brutality, including one man who accused officers of breaking down his door to get into his home without a warrant in 2012 and then repeatedly using a stun gun on him in front of his 1-year-old baby. Police charged that man with aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of a child, and related offenses, but jurors found him not guilty in 2013, according to the complaint.

The federal Justice Department is midway through a two-year review of Chester policing practices under its Community-Oriented Policing Services program.

The Chester High School Clippers, the boys’ basketball team, is regarded as a powerhouse in high school basketball, with many state championships.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal