Policemen testify in Webster trial

DOVER — A sergeant overseeing the patrol shift on the August 2013 night when a city police corporal broke a suspect’s jaw by kicking him in the face opened witness testimony Tuesday in Kent County Superior Court.

The defendant in the case, Dover Police Cpl. Thomas Webster IV, 42, is on trial on charges of second-degree felony assault.

A police dashcam video from that night shows Cpl. Webster kicking Lateef Dickerson, who was on his hands and knees, in the face. Cpl. Webster then handcuffed Mr. Dickerson.

Deputy Attorney General Mark Denney, representing the state with prosecutor Danielle Brennan, said in an opening statement to the jury that use of force is against the law if not justified and an assault if an injury occurs.

While it was legal to take Mr. Dickerson into custody, he maintained, there was no need of excessive use of force with no combative situation present, no fear of weapon and ample police manpower present.

However, the defense contends Cpl. Webster’s actions were justified after he and other officers responded to a call about a fight that included an armed man who fit Mr. Dickerson’s description.

Dover Police Department’s Lt. Todd Case, a sergeant in August 2013, testified Tuesday about his own patrol movements that night. He also evaluated video and audio recordings related to the apprehension of Mr. Dickerson, then 29, by Cpl. Webster.

Thomas W. Webster IV

Thomas W. Webster IV

Lt. Case said he arrived to see Mr. Dickerson handcuffed and sitting on a sidewalk. He said Mr. Dickerson was apparently lucid, “spitting,” “mad,” and “belligerent” when asked about his condition.

Mr. Dickerson responded with a string of profanities while opining that officers were lucky to have caught him, Lt. Case testified.

“He seemed fine,” Lt. Case said, noting that Mr. Dickerson had blood on his chin, was coherent and alert.

Lt. Case also said he did not know the nature of Mr. Dickerson’s spitting, but believed it was not at officers.

Watching the video, Lt. Case said Mr. Dickerson did not appear to be unresponsive to commands when getting down, other than keeping his right leg up in a “sprinter’s” position while his hands were on the ground.

Officers had responded at approximately midnight to a man described as wearing a yellow cap and shirt reportedly holding a firearm while fleeing from a large altercation at the now-closed Hess gas station on U.S. 13.

Watching video of the incident, Lt. Case acknowledged that the officers did not appear to frisk Mr. Dickerson for a potential weapon, and later said no firearm was found.

Lt. Case said not frisking a suspect in that situation was “not a safe decision” by law enforcement.

Also, Lt. Case testified, the choice to search a suspect is an individual one and not set by policy. Cpl. Webster was seen with his hands on Mr. Dickerson’s back while administering handcuffs, he said, and the lack of a firearm did not rule out the possibility of one being discarded beforehand.

Need to know more

Hours after the incident, Lt. Case said he summoned Cpl. Webster and two other officers to the Dover Police Department when learning of the extent of Mr. Dickerson’s injury. Lt. Case wanted to know everything about the sequence.

He testified that Cpl. Webster was “very direct and honest” when telling the sergeant that he administered one kick, the man went down and was handcuffed.

Lt. Case said he pressed further and learned that Cpl. Webster took no further action after the kick, and no other officers were involved.

At that point, Lt. Case told Cpl. Webster to write a “complete, detailed, and precise” use of force report to fully encompass everything that transpired and could potentially later be “examined under a microscope” as the current trial indicates.

After reading the use of force report, which Lt. Case said was consistent with what Cpl. Webster had expressed to

Lateef Dickerson

Lateef Dickerson

him verbally, the document was passed up the chain of command. Lt. Case said he had not seen any dashcam video related to the incident.

As Lt. Case examined the use-of-force report on the witness stand, he was directed to two instances where Cpl. Webster reported that Mr. Dickerson had twice moved his hands toward his waistband, which made him uneasy due to a previous description of an armed suspect.

In his report, Cpl. Webster wrote that he saw Mr. Dickerson make his first move to the waistband, and then reported that another Dover officer arrived on scene. While Mr. Dickerson was seen with his hands up as officers approached, he then lowered them toward his waist as he began to go to the ground.

Three items were recovered as evidence, Lt. Case said. They included a yellow baseball cap, a red bandanna and a yellow shirt he said Mr. Dickerson had worn during the sequence.

Dover Police Department suspended Cpl. Webster without pay after his indictment last May.

What to consider

Lt. Case said that Cpl. Webster incorrectly listed the car number he was assigned to in his use-of-force report. He did not inform the then-sergeant of any available dashcam video at the time, according to testimony.

Also, Lt. Case said, officers for various reasons sometimes switch from assigned patrol vehicles as a shift begins.

Regarding officers using profanities when making commands, Lt. Case said the language can be used to quickly establish how serious a situation is viewed.

In his opening statement, defense lawyer Jim Liguori asked jurors to use their “common sense and logic” to see what happened in the incident. He noted that Cpl. Webster was processing many factors while rushing to the scene — including a reported firearm involved — where split-second decisions would be made in a fluid situation.

In a high-intensity situation, Mr. Liguori said, Cpl. Webster responded to a non-compliant Mr. Dickerson and later sat him up and assisted in bandaging him before transport to Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital.

The video viewed

Former Dover Police Chief James Hosfelt testified that after viewing patrol car video of the incident with command staff members in late October 2013, he contacted the Delaware Department of Justice.

02dsn James Hosfelt Jr. by .

James Hosfelt Jr.

Dover Police Deputy Chief Maj. Marvin Mailey said on the witness stand that he had met with then-Chief Hosfelt to review all dashcam footage, but video from Cpl. Webster’s vehicle was not preserved due to lack of evidentiary value.

Maj. Mailey said video captured Mr. Dickerson as Cpl. Webster arrived and drove by him, but the vehicle recorded video pointed opposite of the sequence upon arrival.

Tiffany Tullis, then a nurse practitioner at the Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital Emergency room, testified that Mr. Dickerson arrived with Cpl. Webster in a “trauma alert” situation due to his reported previous loss of consciousness.

The nurse said a CT scan revealed Mr. Dickerson’s lower jaw was fractured, his joint displaced and in need of surgery.

Ms. Tullis repaired three lacerations to Mr. Dickerson’s lip, forehead and nose with sutures and she had no memory of him being combative.

The jury was selected on Monday from an original pool of 150 and includes nine women and three men. Judge Ferris Wharton is presiding. The trial will resume this morning at 10.

It is unclear if Mr. Dickerson’s whereabouts are known, and the Attorney General’s office has said it does not comment on pending trials.

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