A 25-year-old nursing assistant from Oxford, who claims Officer Mark A. Rojas slammed her head into a plate glass window and unjustly arrested her three years ago, has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city.
The Worcester Superior Court action, filed Sept. 3, also names Officer Kellen E. Smith and Chief Gary J. Gemme.
Katie M. Warren's lawsuit alleges that, prior to the September 2006 incident, Officer Rojas' “violent tendencies were repeatedly tolerated by supervisors, and even when supervisors such as Chief Gemme believed Rojas had acted inappropriately, he was not disciplined.”
Officer Rojas, 36, who has been out on disability with a broken ankle, has been the subject of at least 15 internal police misconduct investigations since joining the department in July 1996.
Ms. Warren, who was 22 at the time of her alleged run-in with Officers Rojas and Smith, says in her lawsuit that Officer Rojas grabbed her ponytail and jerked her head into a plate glass window as Officer Smith held her arms twisted painfully behind her back.
A certified nursing assistant at St. Camillus Health Center in Northbridge, Ms. Warren alleges that the confrontation began when she went to a gas station convenience store on Providence Street on Sept. 4, 2006, to get cash from an ATM machine inside.
She was outside the store in her nurse's uniform talking with a friend she had run into when Officers Rojas and Smith pulled up to the gas pumps in their police cruiser, according to the lawsuit.
“Officers Rojas and Smith then approached to within a short distance, looked Warren up and down and one asked, ‘Well, why don't you smile?'” according to the complaint.
It isn't clear from the complaint which officer allegedly made the comment, but the exchange quickly grew heated, and Officer Rojas allegedly told Ms. Warren's acquaintance: “You should tell your little girlfriend to shut her mouth,” according to the lawsuit.
Ms. Warren claims that she turned to walk away from the officers, saying, “You don't scare me,” when they grabbed her and twisted her arms behind her back as several bystanders looked on.
While Officer Smith held Ms. Warren's arms, Officer Rojas allegedly grabbed her hair and slammed her head into the store window. The officers then allegedly threw her to the ground and took her into custody while heaping verbal abuse on her, according to the complaint.
Copies of photographs of Ms. Warren showing bruises on her arms and legs are included in court records. She went to St. Vincent Hospital for treatment after her boyfriend posted her bail, according to the lawsuit.
Ms. Warren is listed as 5-feet, 3-inches tall and 120 pounds in police paperwork from her arrest. She was charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and two counts of threatening to commit a crime for allegedly shouting that she would have the officers killed.
Police spokesman Sgt. Kerry F. Hazelhurst did not respond to messages left at his office and on his cell phone on Friday.
In a statement of facts supporting the charges, Officer Smith wrote that, “The defendant refused to place her hands behind her back and struggled violently with the officers.”
“The defendant made several threats to ‘have the officers killed,' ” according to his report.
All the charges against Ms. Warren were dismissed in May 2007, and she was placed on probation for three months, according to court records.
Ms. Warren didn't return several calls to her home and the nursing home where she works. Her lawyer, Hector E. Pineiro of Worcester, was out of the state and couldn't be reached.
On March 31, 2008, the day the Telegram & Gazette published an article about Officer Rojas shooting a dog in a Vale Street apartment, Ms. Warren wrote a four-page letter to Chief Gemme complaining about her earlier run-in with Officer Rojas, according to the lawsuit.
The chief acknowledged receipt of Ms. Warren's complaint a few days later in a form letter and said her allegations would be investigated. Ms. Warren didn't hear anything else from the Police Department until 11 months later, when she got a second letter from the chief. In the February 2009 letter, the chief said investigators were having a hard time tracking down the friend with whom Ms. Warren had been speaking at the gas station when the officers walked up.
The lawsuit claims that the city and Chief Gemme were negligent in failing to control Officer Rojas after a number of similar complaints of brutality and misconduct from other people.
“Before the assault and arrest on Warren, Chief Gemme and the city were familiar with Rojas' propensities for violence,” according to the lawsuit. “…Chief Gemme and the city knew that Rojas had previously been the subject of numerous complaints alleging brutality, excessive force and violation of civil rights.”
Citing “disciplinary problems,” Chief Gemme revoked Officer Rojas' license to carry a firearm in December 2008 amid a series of articles in the T&G about allegations of misconduct against the officer.
Although the chief has said previously that the loss of his firearms license prevents Officer Rojas from serving as a police officer, he remained on the city payroll as of this past week, according to city records.
The T&G sued Chief Gemme and the city in Worcester Superior Court last year seeking the release of police internal affairs records related to allegations of misconduct against Officer Rojas. That case remains pending before Superior Court Judge C. Brian McDonald.
Meanwhile, the city agreed in late May to pay a Worcester man $48,750 to settle his federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that a police sergeant unjustly punched him in the head and struck him with a baton while he was on his knees being arrested for trespassing on railroad tracks. That settlement, which was paid by the city, came less than two months after the city paid $30,000 to settle another police brutality lawsuit filed by an Upton man.
So far this year, the city has settled at least three police brutality lawsuits at a total cost of $107,750, according to city records. Last year, the city paid $320,000 in public money to settle five police brutality lawsuits.