PHILADELPHIA (CN) – The City of Philadelphia may be liable for the shooting death of a young man killed by an off-duty cop during a neighborhood altercation.
Frank Tepper, a 16-year-veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, was sentenced to life in prison after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder for killing his 21-year-old neighbor, William Panas Jr., during a 2009 fracas outside Tepper’s home, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in February.
Panas’ parents, William and Karen Panas, say the city is liable for their son’s death because it knew or should have known that Tepper was a “loose cannon” with “an uncontrollable temper” and a checkered history of violence.
According to a federal suitfiled in October 2010, the city allowed Tepper to carry deadly weapons even though he repeatedly engaged in “abnormal and outrageous conduct.”
That conduct, the parents say, included an incident that occurred in the early morning of April 19, 1995, when Tepper, off-duty at the time, left a bar and took offense to comments made to his fiancé by a motorist.
The enraged officer chased the car through the streets of Philadelphia, repeatedly hitting its rear bumper, they say.
Eventually Tepper caught up with the motorist and proceeded to pistol-whip him, the Panas family claims.
Tepper received a two-day suspension from work for the incident, they say.
But Tepper’s violent behavior was far from over, according to court papers filed by the Panas family.
In 2000, Tepper allegedly beat up two boys for throwing snowballs outside his home.
That was the same year Tepper pointed a gun at a 10-year-old who was apparently disturbing Tepper’s sleep by bouncing a basketball at the playground near Tepper’s residence, the Panas family says.
And, the family says, in May 2002, when Tepper learned that his son was being bullied by another child, he went looking for the child, armed with pepper spray.
Unable to locate the alleged bully, Tepper decided to pepper spray a group of teenagers, then pulled out his gun and threatened to shoot them, the Panas family claims.
Then, in November 2009, things came to a head.
Tepper hosted a party at his home in the city’s Port Richmond neighborhood, according to the Panas’ suit.
A fistfight that began in the home migrated to the sidewalk, with Tepper throwing punches while proclaiming he was a cop, the suit says.
Then Tepper drew his gun and shot William Panas Jr. in the chest, according to the suit.
A prosecutor said during Tepper’s trial that Panas Jr. had dared Tepper to shoot, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The police department is accused by the Panas family of doing nearly nothing in response to repeated red flags indicating Tepper was dangerous.
The Panas’ attorney, James Binns in Philadelphia, said in a filing that the story of Frank Tepper “is the quintessential example of a Municipality permitting a career criminal, acting under color of state law, to run amuck due to its deliberately indifferent, lackadaisical, and laizzez faire subpar custom and practice of failing to properly train and/or monitor and/or discipline those to whom they entrust the awesome power to use deadly force.”
U.S. District Judge Legrome Davis ruled this week that the dead man’s parents can proceed with their Monell claim against the city, partially denying the city’s bid for summary judgment.
Drawing all inferences in the Panas’ favor, as the law requires at this stage of the litigation, “a jury could reasonably find that Tepper was a menace to the community, especially when ‘off-duty’ and drinking; the Police Department knew about the problem but had a practice of ignoring or minimizing it; the Department’s failure to adequately train, supervise, or discipline Tepper effectively emboldened him to continue misusing his authority as a police officer, particularly while ‘off-duty’ in his neighborhood; and the Department’s (in)action constituted deliberate indifference with respect to those who crossed Tepper’s path, including Billy Panas, and ultimately caused Panas’ death,” the judge wrote in a 16-page opinion.
But Davis granted the city summary judgment on the Panas’ state-law claims of assault and battery, negligence and wrongful death.
The City is entitled to broad immunity from the claims, he found.