A 33-year-old Yakama tribal member has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Toppenish, alleging he was unjustly beaten by two Toppenish police officers during a traffic stop last fall.
In the lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Yakima, Marlon Delanie Wahsise says he was stopped by police on Sept. 8 on suspicion of drunken driving. He alleges that without provocation, a police officer kneed him twice in the abdomen, then wrestled him to the ground with the help of another officer. He alleges the first officer then punched him in the head and used an elbow to strike him repeatedly in the face until he was unconscious and finally used a stun gun as he laid face down.
Named in the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages for physical injuries, stress and humiliation, are officers D. Perez and O. Zapien.
The case is an example of longstanding tensions between tribal members and municipal law enforcement on the 1.2 million-acre reservation, which includes Toppenish.
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City Manager Bill Murphy said he’s aware of the lawsuit, but forwarded it to the city’s insurance representatives.
Toppenish Police Chief Adam Diaz declined comment on the case, including whether the officers were placed on leave pending an investigation. But he said police officers are justified in using force when someone resists arrest.
Yakima attorney William Pickett, who is representing Wahsise, said Toppenish did not put the officers on administrative leave pending an investigation but should have.
“It was clear and evident that it was excessive use of force,” he said at his office Wednesday. “When a department fails to do that, they’re actually condoning the act.”
According to the lawsuit, Wahsise asked for a tribal police officer be called to the scene, but says Perez took the request as resisting arrest and began assaulting him. The incident was captured on a police video recording obtained by the Yakima Herald-Republic.
“We believe that there was a reaction to Mr. Wahsise wanting a tribal officer,” Pickett said. “And the reaction was a severe beating. We know there has been extreme tension between Native Americans and police in the Lower Valley.”
During the struggle, according to the lawsuit, Wahsise at one point grabbed onto Perez’s belt, and that’s when Perez punched him in the head and delivered six elbow blows to his face -- knocking out one of his teeth, and told Zapien, “He’s out.”
Wahsise never took a swing at officers, according to the lawsuit.
On the video, Perez said he struck Wahsise after he tried to grab his gun, which Wahsise disputes.
Three other police officers appeared and stood over Wahsise, and as one began to roll him onto his back, Perez kicked him, according to the lawsuit.
In the end, Wahsise was charged with drunken driving, not resisting arrest, said Pickett, who contends that a tribal officer should have been called to the scene out of courtesy.
“The question is what is good police practice?” he said. “He’s saying he wants a tribal police officer here.”
The eastern edge of the reservation is a checkerboard of tribal and nontribal land, and determining which department has jurisdiction can be difficult.
Diaz said his officers have jurisdiction over tribal members within the city when it comes to criminal matters, but not civil matters. “We’re not mandated to having to notify the tribe,” he said.
Similar cases have led to a recent agreement between the tribe and the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office that requires deputies to notify the tribe before serving an arrest warrant to a tribal member on tribal land. A tribal officer is allowed to be present and those who are arrested must be booked into the tribe’s jail and extradited.
Diaz said his department would be willing to work out some kind of similar agreement with the tribe on Toppenish police matters.
“We are working on a memorandum of agreement and hope to come to some kind of agreement to work better together,” he said. “I think we’re all in the business of wanting the best for our community.”
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