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Syracuse cop with checkered past sued again for brutality, this time by a retired jail doctor

Syracuse.com logo Syracuse.com 12/22/2020 Douglass Dowty, syracuse.com
a man sitting at a table: Mark Johnston, front, is filing a lawsuit against the Syracuse Police Department for alleged brutality. He claims officer Vallon Smith wrongly beat him up and broke his ribs last year on Mountain Goat Sunday after a dispute over a parking space © Behind him is attorney Jesse Ryder.\n\n Dennis Nett | dnett@syracuse.com/syracuse.com/TNS Mark Johnston, front, is filing a lawsuit against the Syracuse Police Department for alleged brutality. He claims officer Vallon Smith wrongly beat him up and broke his ribs last year on Mountain Goat Sunday after a dispute over a parking space

Syracuse, NY — Syracuse Police Officer Vallon Smith has been chastised by the district attorney, the Citizen Review Board and singled out by anti-police brutality activists. He recently cost city taxpayers $400,000 to settle a pair of brutality lawsuits.

Now, Smith faces another brutality lawsuit: this time, by a former doctor at the county lockup.

Dr. Mark Johnston, 65, of Syracuse, alleges that Smith needlessly punched and tackled him at last year’s Mountain Goat Run downtown. Johnston was the medical administrator for 10 years at the Jamesville penitentiary. Police have said Johnston was the initial aggressor and that Smith was coming to the aid of another officer.

RELATED: Syracuse cop, an unwilling symbol of needed police reform, accused again of brutality

Johnston’s lawyers, Charles Bonner and Jesse Ryder, are asking for $9.2 million in damages against the city police department.

The lawsuit, expected for months, comes on the heels of a city agreement to pay two other people — activist Maurice Crawley and teenager Jabari Boykins — a total of $400,000 (including attorney’s fees) to settle prior brutality allegations against Smith.

DA William Fitzpatrick said that Smith “screwed up” and “overreacted” when he arrested Crawley in 2016, but added that Crawley had “stalked” the officer before that date. The Citizen Review Board found Smith acted with “excessive force” when dealing with Boykins, a suspended student who had come back into a school building.

Ryder, who represented Crawley, Boykins and others in brutality lawsuits, wasn’t shy about pointing out the significance of the doctor’s standing in the community when filing the new lawsuit. Whereas Crawley had a checkered past himself and Boykins had bipolar disorder and symptoms of autism, Johnston’s allegations don’t come with such caveats.

For some, brutality is dismissed as “look at, there’s another Black guy who got beaten up by the cops, and he probably deserved it,” Ryder asserted. “But if it can happen to someone like Maurice Crawley, it can happen to you.”

To drive his point home, Ryder coupled Johnston’s allegations in the lawsuit with those of a Black man, Shaolin Moore, who alleges brutality against different city officers. Johnston and Moore are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Moore was physically removed from a vehicle on the Near West Side in May 2019 during a loud-music arrest. Officers Christopher Buske and Leonard Brown were involved in the arrest, while their supervisors — including Police Chief Kenton Buckner — are also named in the lawsuit.

Buckner later ruled that Buske and Brown acted unprofessionally by using condescending language against Moore, but defended his officers’ actions as “appropriate and consistent” after Moore refused to get out of the vehicle.

However, City Court Judge Ann Magnarelli noted from the bench during Moore’s criminal prosecution that the officers might have opened themselves up to a legitimate civil lawsuit. Moore’s criminal case was resolved with a $75 fine and no conviction.

As for Johnston’s case, the retired doctor accuses Smith — who is Black — of knocking him out during the May 5, 2019 incident. It started when Johnston was looking for a place to park downtown during the annual Mountain Goat race.

The doctor said he was following directions from a traffic cop when Smith approached him and said he was under arrest. When asking why, Johnson alleges Smith punched him and tackled him to the ground.

But an internal police investigation accuses Johnston of being the initial aggressor, and other officers said he was blocking traffic, acting erratically, harassing a community service officer and disregarding officers’ orders when Smith tackled him.

Their stories don’t match in other ways:

Johnston says he was asking directions to Clinton Square, while Smith says he was yelling and pointing at the traffic officer, according to the lawsuit.

Johnston says that Smith punched him as soon as he asked why he was being arrested, while Smith says Johnston began walking away, then tried to get the officer in a bear hug.

One witness, a valet driver at the Syracuse Marriott Downtown, said that Johnston had stopped his vehicle in the middle of the road, gotten out and challenged the traffic officer. After moving his vehicle, Johnston continued his interaction with the traffic officer, leading her to radio Smith for help, according to the police account.

What happened once Smith arrived will be the heart of the lawsuit. There is no known video of Johnston’s encounter.

Johnston says he suffered two broken ribs, a head injury and cuts and bruises on his face and scalp from the encounter.

Also in doubt is how the Citizen Review Board — which probes police misconduct — would handle Johnston’s complaint. Syracuse police have previously noted that the board declined to hold a hearing on Johnston’s allegations, suggesting they had no merit.

But Ryder says that the board may reconsider opening the case after Johnston’s resubmitted a complaint with the lawyer’s help.

Police spokesman Sgt. Matthew Malinowski has said that two internal investigations found Smith’s actions “proportional, necessary, and reasonable under the circumstances.” Smith used “low-level compliance techniques” needed to subdue an unruly Johnston, Malinowski said in a July story on the allegations.

Outgoing police union president Jeff Piedmonte also defended Smith’s actions, calling him an “exemplary officer” in a letter to the editor.

As for Moore’s case, videos of the encounter have been widely dissected by the public and authorities. Moore was driving near the scene of a shooting at Skiddy Park when officers approached his vehicle, under the premise that his music was too loud.

When officers ordered him out of the vehicle, Moore protested. The incident escalated, and officers forcibly pulled Moore from the vehicle while he resisted.

Legal experts say it’s clear that Moore had no choice but to leave his vehicle under the circumstances, even if only for a loud-music complaint.

But Ryder — and City Court Judge Ann Magnarelli — wonder whether officers’ actions after Moore’s refusal were legally reasonable. If officers overreacted, that could open them up to liability, according to the lawsuit.

The joint lawsuit on behalf of Johnston and Moore was filed this month in federal court. The department has not yet responded in court.

Staff writer Douglass Dowty can be reached at ddowty@syracuse.com or 315-470-6070.

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