Family files civil suit against officer, city of Orange over Whitehead shooting

Michelle Massey, East Texas Bureau Mar. 9, 2011, 5:23am

File photo from the Dec. 15 rally at the Orange County Courthouse after a grand jury chose not to indict an off-duty Orange police officer who shot and killed a man last July.

The family of a man shot by an off-duty police officer has filed a lawsuit against the city of Orange, arguing it continued to employ the officer despite his alleged history of excessive force, violent outbursts and domestic abuse.

Diana Whitehead, Vernon Ray Whitehead Sr.; Jennifer Lynn Hughes, as next friend of H.H., a minor; and Karlan Lea Jorgensen filed suit against Robert Arnold and the city of Orange on March 1 in the Eastern District of Texas, Beaumont Division.

According to the lawsuit, on July 26, 2010, James Whitehead, 28, a multi-decorated veteran, attempted to return a valve to O'Reilly's Automotive. Allegedly, the clerk refused to refund the purchase and began arguing with Whitehead. The clerk called the police and while they were on their way, an off-duty Orange police officer intervened. Capt. Robert Arnold confronted Whitehead, who was already in his car.

The lawsuit states that the police officer then forced his way into the passenger side of Whitehead's vehicle and shot Whitehead in the chest.

"After the shooting, Captain Arnold unbelievably did what has been termed a 'victory dance,' showing no remorse for this senseless killing," the lawsuit alleges.

The family maintains that Whitehead was unarmed and posed no threat to anyone.

The city of Orange is accused of enabling its employees to act with deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of individuals by tolerating misconduct of its police officers and by encouraging misconduct by failing to adequately supervise, discipline or train its officers. In addition, city policies permitted hiring an officer with known record of violence, the suit states. The lawsuit claims that Capt. Arnold was unfit to be a police officer due to violent tendencies and domestic violence.

The defendant is also accused of covering up and ignoring evidence that shows the liability of Capt. Arnold and of the Orange Police Department for violations of James Whitehead's civil rights.

The family is seeking damages for pecuniary loss, loss of companionship and society, mental anguish, exemplary damages, court costs and interest.

According to media reports, in November an Orange County grand jury chose not to indict Arnold for the shooting. Whitehead's friends and family members staged a protest outside the Orange County Courthouse in December, alleging District Attorney John Kimbrough did not present a fair case to grand jurors.

Arnold claims he got into the vehicle with Whitehead and told him to wait for other officers to arrive. Whitehead, who is white, became hostile, Arnold said, made racial remarks to him and began pushing and trying to strike the African American officer.

Arnold was terminated from his position with the police department.

The plaintiffs are represented by Clay Dugas and Mike Jacobellis of Clay Dugas & Associates in Beaumont and David Dies of Dies & Parkhurts in Orange.

U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield is assigned to the case.

Case No. 1:11-cv-00107

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