Jake Zuckerman Staff Writer Charleston Gazette Mail|
A man accused a West Virginia State Police trooper of excessive force Monday, alleging the trooper repeatedly beat him with a nightstick, choked him and sprayed him with pepper spray.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court, Joshua Settle, 20, claimed that Trooper Nathan Scott Stepp exercised excessive force in April 2017, and the trooper's dashboard-mounted camera captured the entire incident. Several still photographs of the footage are included in the suit.
However, a State Police spokesman and Stepp's original criminal complaint offered a different narrative.
Settle alleged Stepp attempted to pull him over before he fled and crashed his car in a ditch on Daniel's Run Road, in Calhoun County, around 11 p.m. When Stepp approached the vehicle, Settle, who was unarmed, showed the officer his hands.
"Trooper Stepp then proceeded to drag Plaintiff out of the vehicle by his face as Plaintiff repeatedly cried out, 'I'm scared, I'm scared,' " the suit states.
After placing Settle in a chokehold, the suit states Stepp had him on the ground with his hands behind his back, but did not handcuff him, instead opting to burrow his knee into Settle's back. He then threatened to break Settle's finger and shoot him, as Settle cried out in pain.
When Settle pleaded for Stepp to put him in the police car, according to the suit, Stepp handcuffed his own left wrist to Settle's and began repeatedly spraying him in the face with pepper spray.
"You're being mean," Settle said, as detailed in the lawsuit. "Let me breathe, I'm not fighting you."
Eventually, Stepp, with Settle on the ground, wielded his nightstick and, "without justification or provocation, and while still handcuffed to Plaintiff, Trooper Stepp began violently beating Plaintiff in the head, torso, arms and legs with his night stick."
According to the suit, Settle pleaded with Stepp to stop beating him, telling him he had nothing on him, he had nothing in his pockets and was pooling blood.
"Despite Plaintiff's compliance to Trooper Stepp's verbal commands, numerous pleas to make the beating stop, and repeated requests to be placed in Trooper Stepp's police vehicle, Trooper Stepp continued to violently beat Plaintiff with his night stick," the suit states. "Plaintiff once again howled in pain as Trooper Stepp struck him with his night stick over and over again."
Several photographs in the suit show Settle with a hefty coagulation of blood over and around his left ear and splattered across the right side of his face. They also show blood forming a ring around the collar of his T-shirt.
As the beating ebbed, Settle begged for it to be over, according to the suit, which quotes Stepp acquiescing.
"Man to man, we're done, alright?" he said. "I'm so sorry, straight up, alright?"
Afterward, Stepp asked Settle if he had any diseases, hepatitis, AIDS or was an intravenous drug user. Police photographs taken at the time, included in the suit, show Stepp's arms glazed over with Settle's blood.
The suit states, and photos contained within appear to confirm, Settle's blood had pooled on the road about 15 yards from his car, and splattered on the side of the road as well.
As the two awaited medical help, Settle moaned in pain, begged for water, struggled to talk, stand and sit, and could not even properly recite his own name when asked, the suit states.
Settle was airlifted to Charleston Area Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with an acute head injury, lacerations to the scalp and face requiring nine staples, cranial hematomas, a possible left wrist fracture, and a possible lung contusion.
The suit alleges Stepp attempted to cover up his actions by executing a criminal complaint bringing false charges against Settle including attempting to disarm an officer (a felony), obstructing an officer, battery on an officer, and destruction of property (the officer's shirt), all of which are refuted by the footage.
Also, the suit states Stepp told medical responders the crash caused Settle's injuries, which the dash footage contradicts.
According to Maj. Joe White, director of professional standards for the West Virginia State Police, Stepp is still on active duty and has not been disciplined. He said after the incident in question, as is standard policy after an officer uses force in the course of an arrest, the police conducted an administrative review of events.
"I watched the video this morning, along with our chief of field operations, we both reviewed it and discussed the merits of it," he said. "From my perspective, it exonerates the trooper of the allegations that are being lodged in this complaint."
He declined to immediately provide a copy of the dashboard footage or the administrative review, but said both should be attainable through public records requests.
He said the lawsuit took the still photographs out of context from the full video. He said he and the police stand by the charges filed against Settle as well.
In January, a Calhoun County grand jury indicted Settle on eight offenses: attempting to disarm an officer, obstructing an officer, fleeing from an officer, battery on an officer, defective equipment, driving while license suspended (third offense), possession of a controlled substance, and destruction of property.
When asked specifically about the allegation that Stepp handcuffed his left wrist to Settle's left wrist, White denied it.
"That's not accurate, they weren't handcuffed to each other," he said. "The trooper was able to get one cuff on Mr. Settle, and he couldn't get the other cuff on him, and Mr. Settle wouldn't comply with his directives to let him handcuff him."
In response to this quotation, Russell Williams, Settle's attorney, provided a series of photos that show the left wrists of Settle and Stepp handcuffed together.
"The horrific dashcam video and police photographs speak for themselves," Williams said in a statement.
A criminal complaint Stepp wrote in April 2017 offers a different narrative than that of the lawsuit. He does not mention dragging Settle out of his vehicle by his face, although he does not say directly how Settle emerged from the overturned vehicle.
He said Settle resisted arrest and would not follow directives.
"After physically fighting with Mr. Settle for approximately 15 minutes, this trooper was eventually able to get him under control and secure him in restraints," the complaint states. "During the strenuous fight, Mr. Settle struck this trooper several times with his fists; Mr. Settle even attempted to disarm this trooper. While grappling with him, Mr. Settle was able to successfully unclasp this trooper's holster and was pulling the handle of this trooper's pistol."
The Calhoun County prosecuting attorney could not be reached for comment.