9 Investigates dozens of lawsuits against OPD

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ORLANDO, Fla. —

9 Investigates discovered nearly three dozen lawsuits have been filed against Orlando police accusing them of excessive force or false arrest in recent years, costing taxpayers more than $1 million.

That total doesn't include a $90,000 federal jury award handed down just last week. That jury ruled in favor of a woman who said she was falsely arrested by Orlando police.

Channel 9's Ryan Hughes also learned Louis Cabeza, a man an OPD officer shot with a Taser and struck with a baton, plans to file a lawsuit against the department soon.

The incident with Cabeza happened at Blue Martini at the Mall at Millenia after, an officer said, Cabeza hit him in the chest and refused to be handcuffed.

Rough scenes like the video showing Cabeza getting hit with a baton have played out time and again in Orlando.

Hughes asked Orlando Police Chief Paul Rooney about the incidents, some of which have led to costly lawsuits.

"Do you think, at times, some officers can be too forceful?" Hughes asked.

"I think, at times, we're human," Rooney responded. "And I'm not going to make any excuses."

Eyewitness News has reported on scores of lawsuits filed against the Orlando Police Department. City records show 32 citizens hit OPD with false arrest or excessive force lawsuits since 2009. And a total of $1.3 million in taxpayer money went to settlements or jury awards for 18 of those cases.

"Do you think that number says something about the police force here?" Hughes asked one local lawyer.

"It says they make a lot of false arrests," said attorney Howard Marks, who has represented some of those suing OPD. "I think they use force that's unnecessary."

Heather Hull sued OPD after she was shot with a Taser by an OPD officer at the Citrus Bowl in 2003. She won $80,000 in her case. Marks received two times that amount for attorney's costs.

In 2010, Daniel Daley's neck was broken by an OPD officer. A federal jury later awarded the elderly man $880,000.

Hughes learned that if a suit gets filed against a police department in state court, there is a $200,000 cap. But in federal court, a victim can be awarded any amount of money.

Orlando police are not alone when it comes to having these kinds of claims filed against its officers.

In Fort Lauderdale, which has 80,000 fewer residents than Orlando, there have been even more lawsuits filed against the city police: at least 50 in the past few years.

Back in Orlando, Rooney sees the lawsuits as a blip when compared to the 18,000 arrests made by his officers each year.

"When you look at 32 lawsuits over four or five years," Rooney said, "that's one-tenth of 1 percent."

He told Hughes that the department spends $120,000 on additional training each year.

"Computer-based training. We do training bulletins. We have our legal staff come in and do updates," Rooney explained.

Local attorneys agree that extra training is a must in order to lower the number of claims against the department.

"If you don't interfere with the behavior, it's not going to change, whether negative or positive," said Thomas Luka, another attorney who has sued the department in excessive force or false arrest cases.

Hughes reached out to several people who filed suits against OPD, but they didn't want to talk.

As for the officers involved in the cases 9 Investigates highlighted, they couldn't comment on the story. Many are still on the force after receiving little or no discipline.