TOWN OF EVANS, N.Y. (WKBW) — Don’t mess with the Evans Police Department.
That’s the lesson 19-year-old Brandon Bernard learned when he was shocked with a Taser repeatedly by an Evans police officer at Evans Town Park in July.
Police were responding to a report of “a large group of youths causing a disturbance and drinking at the beach” and wrote in a report that Bernard began to “aggressively walk toward patrol” and “spun away in a violent manner” as he was attempting to flee.
But a video of the encounter that went viral on Facebook tells a different story.
Warning: This video may be disturbing to some viewers.
In the video, onlookers plead with Officer Scott DeJohn to stop when the shirtless Bernard -- face down and screaming in pain with his hands behind his back -- is subjected to another round of the stun gun by DeJohn.
“I thought, ‘This is unacceptable,’” said Bob Catalano, an Evans taxpayer. “The police owe us an explanation on what happened here. This man didn't look like he resisting arrest to me.”
Both Officer DeJohn and Evans Police Chief Douglas Czora declined on-camera interviews with 7 Eyewitness News. But Czora said in a phone interview, “It was a routine arrest. The officer did what he was supposed to do. I don’t see anything the officer did wrong.”
But this was not an isolated incident.
An investigation by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team found years of alleged misconduct by Evans Police, as detailed in multiple state and federal lawsuits filed against the town and the department.
In at least four cases, those lawsuits resulted in confidential settlements with taxpayers who said they were harassed or brutalized by police officers who used excessive force.
Those settlements include:
- A 2005 settlement with an Evans man who filed a federal lawsuit alleging his young daughter’s civil rights were violated during an arrest.
- A 2015 settlement with an Evans man who filed a federal suit alleging harassment by a town officer whose family member was involved in a bankruptcy dispute with the man.
- A 2018 settlement with an Evans woman who filed a federal suit against six officers -- including DeJohn, the same officer who used the stun gun on the 19-year-old beachgoer and who is also the son of a former Evans police chief.
- A 2018 settlement with an Evans man who came to the police station to inquire about a domestic dispute but who ended up getting tackled from behind by two officers, one who used a stun gun on him.
Click here to read those lawsuits that were settled by the Town of Evans.
Court records do not give the amount of the settlements. Evans officials have not fulfilled a Freedom of Information Law request sent weeks ago by the I-Team seeking a list of the payouts.
“They put out these non-disclosure agreements when they beat somebody up, saying, ‘Hold us harmless, don't sue us, and we'll drop the charges,’” said Catalano. “It's a scam by the Evans Police Department and I'm just tired of it.”
Taxpayer tackled from behind
“In simple terms, two guys jumped a guy from behind who had committed no crime and took [him] to the ground,” said attorney Nelson Torre, who defended a criminal case against the man who was tackled by the officers.
Torre defended an Evans man who came to the police station in 2014 after noticing his girlfriend’s car in the parking lot. Officers originally told the man that his girlfriend was not at the station, which video shows was not true.
“And that's when he comes back,” Torre said. “You could see he gestures and says, ‘Yes, see, that's her car. That's, that's it for sure.’ And that's when the officer gives him the straight arm push.”
The man was not under arrest and came to the police station voluntarily. After the officer shoves him, he turns to walk back to his car.
“He turned around and he began to leave, at which time he was grabbed from behind around the throat and thrown to the ground by the two [officers],” Torre said. “And the struggle ensued.”
A copy of the video obtained by the I-Team shows punches are thrown as the officers try to subdue him and one officer takes out a stun gun and begins shocking the man.
The official policy of Evans Police is to “use force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient,” according to the department’s website.
But “the testimony at the public jury trial revealed that he had been tased somewhere in the neighborhood of two dozen times,” Torre said.
The man was charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct and was taken to the Erie County Holding Center. But a jury of Evans taxpayers decided the charges should not stand.
“The jury was back in 15 minutes or less with an acquittal on all counts,” Torre said.
Czora, the police chief, said in a written statement, “All of our officers are highly trained professionals and are out there in the community doing the best they can.”
Fourth of July incident
The woman who sued was attending a Fourth of July fireworks show at Lake Erie Beach Park in 2014 when she received a call from her son in Hamburg, who said their dog had gone missing.
When she tried to leave the event to help her son look for their dog, she was stopped by a volunteer firefighter who told her the road was closed and that only Evans Police could let her proceed.
Then she received even worse news: a Hamburg police officer called to tell her that the dog had since been hit by a car. She started crying and was distraught when Evans Police arrived, but the woman said they were not sympathetic.
She testified that DeJohn said to her, “if you don’t knock it off...We’re going to cuff you.”
The next thing she knew, her testimony states, “I recall being pushed, middle of my back being pushed, I distinctly recall my phone flying out of my hand in the air and the next thing I remember I was face-down in the grass with my face in the grass and people on my back.”
In the police car, officers “said to me to shut the f--- up, I’m sick of listening to you,” according to a transcript of the woman’s deposition filed in federal court.
After placing her under arrest for disorderly conduct, officers at the Evans police station “very forcefully with both hands shoved me down on my shoulders” and taunted her about the death of her dog, she said in the deposition.
“I was sobbing about what the officers did to me, how they treated me, how they humiliated me, how disrespectful they were, how they didn’t care whether they had a citizen, a citizen crying and instead of helping her, being an advocate and helping and finding out what the problem was and de-escalating an event, they chose to be confrontational,” she stated.
The woman sued six Evans police officers and the town paid a settlement, though William Lorenz, her lawyer, said he could not comment on the settlement amount because of its confidential nature.
The woman who received the settlement from the town did not respond to a request for comment; this account is drawn entirely from sworn depositions that were filed as part of her civil court case.
In his own deposition, Officer DeJohn gave a different account, stating that the woman said “f--- you” to the officer before he arrested her (she denied this during her deposition). DeJohn also stated that the woman “had been resisting us” and “jerking away” during the incident.
Despite the settlement, the encounter with Evans Police appears to have had long-lasting effects.
The woman felt “haunted” by the encounter and developed anxiety every time police officers drove by her house, which she estimated was 8 to 10 times per day.
She quit her job at Lake Shore Hospital because, as a triage nurse, she became fearful when she had to deal with officers who brought in patients.
And her recently purchased dream home located on 27 acres suddenly lost its luster.
“I would be in my yard and I would feel my heart pounding,” she stated. “I would cry at the drop of a hat. I was walking around my yard all the time crying, upset, angry that this happened, that I’m living here in Angola and I feel uncomfortable. I feel fearful.”
The woman said in a deposition that she requested a meeting with the then-police chief to complain about the force used by the officers.
“I said to him that I, you know, how could his officers, you know, throw down a 54-year-old woman to the ground and get on her back and cuff her and treat her in that way,” she stated.
The chief, who is not named in the deposition, replied, “It wouldn’t matter if you were an 80-year-old woman, the officers would do that to an 80-year-old woman if they felt threatened for their lives.”
The experience left her wondering whether police would protect her if she ever needed their assistance.
“This happened where I’ve chosen to make my home and where I planned to live the rest of my life,” she said. “Now I live in a community that, you know, did this to me and that I don’t trust them. So these things go through my mind all the time.”
Czora, the current police chief, declined a request for an on-camera interview to discuss the case but responded by email by saying that neither DeJohn “nor any of the officers named in that lawsuit, did anything wrong that day. I was involved in that investigation and found the claims made that day had no merit.”
Czora also wrote that “the complainant in that lawsuit and I speak on occasion - we agree to disagree with her complaint, but otherwise have a very amicable relationship.”
Evans Town Supervisor Mary K. Hosler did not return a phone message seeking comment on whether she has confidence in the police department, but others say it’s clear that reform is needed.
“It's small town corruption,” Catalano said. “And when you let it go year after year, decade after decade, it adds up.”
Torre said, “There's some systemic changes that need to be made in terms of policing and ensuring that there is public safety while people's rights are respected.”