A Forest Park police sergeant pled guilty Friday to a federal civil rights charge stemming from a 2003 arrest during which the officer used his baton to break the suspect’s wrist after stunning him with pepper spray.
Michael Murphy, a police officer in the village since 1990, was indicted in October 2007 by a federal grand jury on a pair of felony charges for the use of excessive force and falsifying information on an arrest report. The agreement reached with prosecutors was for a single misdemeanor charge and carries a maximum jail sentence of 12 months.
Had he been convicted on the felony charges, Murphy faced up to 30 years behind bars and a fine of $500,000. Jury selection was scheduled to begin on Monday, Apr. 21.
But before the trail could get under way, Murphy pled guilty to police misconduct while acting “under color of law,” and agreed to resign from the police department, forfeiting his ability to ever again work as a law enforcement officer in any jurisdiction.
“Over his career he’s done some very good things for the police department,” Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas said. “At the same time, with this plea deal … it’s disappointing.”
The incident in question occurred in the early morning hours of Aug. 6, 2003, when Murphy responded to a complaint about Sidney Hooks, who was allegedly panhandling and creating a disturbance. As the supervising sergeant on duty, Murphy arrived to assist fellow officers Harold Grimes and David Hohl, who were the first to respond. Grimes and Hohl determined the situation did not warrant an arrest.
However, according to details outlined in the plea agreement, Murphy improperly initiated a verbal confrontation before striking Hooks with a baton and using pepper spray against him.
According to the agreement, “while Hooks had his back turned toward [Murphy], Murphy deployed his asp and without justification struck Hooks more than once.”
Murphy is alleged to have later filed an incident report falsely claiming that Hooks verbally threatened the officers before advancing towards Murphy, intending to strike the officers with a beer bottle.
In the plea agreement, Murphy also admitted to coercing Grimes to sign a false complaint detailing Hooks’ aggressive behavior. Grimes refused to sign the complaint and was also expected to testify against Murphy in the upcoming trial.
The plea does not include charges related to prosecutors’ allegations of obstruction of justice.
As part of the plea deal, Murphy admitted that at no time did Hooks verbally or physically assault the officers.
Steve Johnsen, a former lieutenant with the department who served as deputy chief in 2003, was one of several officers scheduled to testify against Murphy. Johnsen said he was pleased to hear a deal had been made to preempt the courtroom proceedings.
“By pleading guilty I think he saved everybody a lot of trouble,” Johnsen said. “It is horrible to be put in a position to have to testify against people you work with and depend upon every day for your own safety. That wasn’t really fair to put them in that position.
“I take no joy in the fact that he would have to go to prison for what he did. But for his own sake and for the morale of the department I think a guilty plea was best.”
The Hooks incident was not the first time Murphy was the subject of a citizen complaint. On at least three other occasions, the village of Forest Park paid settlements on civil cases in which Murphy was named as a defendant.
“This definitely leaves [the department] with a black eye,” Johnsen said. “Mike Murphy is not the only guy in the department who is a little heavy handed. This is an ongoing problem and it’s characteristic of the way the department is today.”
Johnsen resigned from the force in early 2007 as municipal hearings to strip him of his badge were set to begin. Johnsen was accused of mishandling an investigation involving a village commissioner and a bar owner.
Hooks, who was awarded $50,000 in a June 2004 settlement with Forest Park, suffered a broken wrist, chemical burns to the eyes, and a thigh bruise during his arrest.
Russell Binsworth, an associate at Loevy & Loevy who represented Hooks in the 2004 civil case, said he was thankful federal authorities took the case seriously and that no one else would be subject to Murphy’s misconduct.
“I’m glad that officer Murphy has taken accountability for his actions,” Binsworth said. “I hope that he will be punished with full authority of the law and that this brings to light the scope of police misconduct in this department.”
Murphy’s defense attorney, Rick Halprin, did not elaborate on the reasons his client averted a trial but said the guilty plea is for a lesser charge.
Randall Samborn, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said he could not comment on a pending case until after sentencing was imposed.
Following his indictment by the grand jury, Murphy was placed on paid administrative leave. That pay and his pension are not in jeopardy as a result of a guilty plea, though the agreement outlines the possibility that Murphy may have to pay restitution, if so ordered by the judge during sentencing.
U.S. District Judge David Coar will decide July 9 whether Murphy is to serve time in jail.