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Officer says he didn’t intend to kick suspect in head

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DOVER, Del. » A white police officer charged with assault after breaking a black suspect’s jaw with a kick said today that he was aiming for the man’s upper body, not his head.

Dover police officer Thomas Webster IV testified, as other witnesses have, that Lateef Dickerson was slow to comply with repeated police commands to get on the ground. He also said he was scared and feared for the safety of himself and others because officers were told that Dickerson was armed with a gun.

“I’m extremely, extremely concerned for my safety. … At no point did he give me the impression that he was complying,” Webster said in his trial on a felony assault charge.

“I wasn’t intending to kick him in the head,” Webster explained under questioning from his defense attorney, James Liguori. “I was trying to connect with his upper body.”

But prosecutor Danielle Brennan pointed out that Webster didn’t mention in his use-of-force report or in a supplemental crime report that he did not intend to kick Dickerson in the head.

“The use-of-force report is the time to explain what was going on in your mind,” she said.

Webster stood by his account.

“The fact that I kicked him in the head was much more specific, and I thought that was what should be included,” he said.

Dashcam video from another officer’s car shows that Dickerson had placed his hands on the ground but wasn’t fully prone on the ground when Webster kicked him.

The defense has argued that Dickerson still presented a threat because he was in a “sprinter’s position” from which he could have fled, lunged at officers, or pulled a weapon.

“Lateef told me that his intention was to run or fight, and he was trying to make a decision as to what he was going to do,” Webster testified, recalling a conversation he had with Dickerson after taking him to the hospital.

Webster also said Dickerson, who police say was carrying a red bandanna, admitted that he was a member of the Bloods street gang.

Philip Hayden, a retired FBI agent and expert in the use of force, testified for the defense that he believes Webster was justified in trying to control Dickerson with a kick to the torso but that an intentional kick to head would have been excessive.

“He ran out of options. … We had a man who was potentially very dangerous,” Hayden said.

Ron Martinelli, a use-of-force expert who testified for the prosecution, said Webster’s use of force was unreasonable because Dickerson did not present an “objectively reasonable threat” at the time.

The defense rested its case after calling Delaware State Police Cpl. Ricardo Torres, a police academy defensive tactics instructor whose students have included Webster.

Torres testified that Webster’s use of force was reasonable in a felony stop situation where lethal force by or against an officer is possible.

“What gets officers killed out on the street is hesitation,” said Torres, noting that once Dickerson was under control, there was no other use of force.

“There’s no high-fives. There’s no additional strikes by either officer,” he said.

Prosecutor Mark Denney Jr. tried to discredit Torres by suggesting that he and Webster were “buddies.”

Jurors were scheduled to hear closing arguments and begin deliberations Friday.

Liguori has maintained that Webster’s indictment was the result of “state machinations” and an “abuse of power.” A grand jury declined to indict the officer after the encounter, but a second one indicted Webster earlier this year.

Liguori has argued in court papers that Democratic Attorney General Matt Denn’s decision to take the case to a second grand jury with no new evidence was a politically motivated response to nationwide scrutiny of police encounters with black citizens.

Webster rejected an offer from prosecutors to plead guilty to misdemeanor assault in return for surrendering his certification and never working as a police officer again. If convicted of felony assault, he faces up to eight years in prison.

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