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Lawrence man’s lawsuit against ex-cop, city to end with settlement; case reveals details of internal investigations

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Post updated at 7:41 p.m. Wednesday, March 1:

A federal civil case against ex-Lawrence police officer Brad Williams, the City of Lawrence and a former police chief was set to proceed to trial, but the parties have reached a settlement. 

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Internal investigation documents and a judge’s order previously filed under seal reveal details that have never been made public about two cases that brought officer integrity issues into the spotlight in Douglas County.

The civil case, filed in July 2021 by Duc Tran, alleges that Williams broke Tran’s left elbow, dislocated his shoulders and chipped one of his teeth while arresting him — then manufactured charges against Tran in an attempt to avoid consequences. 

The case was set to go to trial this month on six counts, including claims of excessive force, battery and malicious prosecution against Williams and the City of Lawrence.

Tran’s Douglas County criminal case — which was ultimately dismissed — has had a ripple effect through the local criminal legal system. And Williams’ law enforcement certification has been revoked, though for unrelated reasons.

The case, and the Lawrence Police Department’s exoneration of Williams, factored into a new policy in the district attorney’s office. And the policy, in turn, has led to conflict between prosecutors and area law enforcement. 

Night of the arrest: June 29, 2019

Duc Tran, 43 years old at the time, was skateboarding with a friend, Aaron Chick, in the 700 block of New Hampshire Street around 11 p.m. Saturday, June 29, 2019. Then-Lawrence police officer Brad Williams stopped Tran for violating traffic ordinances by skating in the street. 

Tran shared information about his arrest and photos of his injuries on Facebook. His post reached a lot of people, and local media wrote about the arrest. Then-Chief of Police Gregory Burns Jr. directed the Office of Professional Accountability to start an internal investigation, the details of which are included in the civil case file.

Williams’ patrol vehicle, equipped with a dashcam, was pointing away from the incident, which occurred before LPD got body cameras. There is no video recording, but there is an audio recording. 

Williams, in a probable cause affidavit supporting Tran’s arrest, wrote that Tran was being argumentative and “screamed ‘are you going to arrest me?’ and began walking away … Affiant told Tran he was not free to go, and Tran yelled back ‘Are you going to arrest me?’ Affiant again told Tran he was not free to go, and Tran yelled ‘Bye,’ and continued walking away.” 

When Williams told Tran to come back, Williams wrote, Tran had approached him “aggressively, holding his skateboard in his hand, above his head, as if he were going to strike (Williams) with it.”

Tran said he never did that. 

Chick told police in an interview about a month after the incident that Tran was holding his skateboard “a ‘little aggressively’, but not to the point where he was ‘warranting any issues, but it was beyond the point where it should have been,’” according to a report from the police department’s internal investigation. The report later states that Chick said Tran may have lifted the skateboard up to the level of his waist, but no higher. 

In a deposition on Sept. 19, 2022, Chick said the skateboard “was not and never was from my recollection raised. Did his hand motions make the skateboard move a little erratically, probably, because he’s a little agitated, obviously, so …”

Chick also told police that both Williams and Tran were more aggressive than the situation warranted, and that they had both aggravated the situation, according to the report. 

But Williams, Tran and Chick all said Tran dropped the skateboard when Williams told him to. 

Williams’ affidavit states that he “took control of” Tran’s left arm and told him to put his hands behind his back, but he resisted, so Williams “placed Tran onto the sidewalk in an effort to better control him.” 

Williams had radioed for backup. 

“Affiant continued to instruct Tran to ‘put your hands behind your back!’” Williams wrote. “Tran refused, and continually attempted to free himself from Affiant’s control. Officer (Ian) McCann arrived along with other Officers, and was able to take Tran into custody.”

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In an interview on Dec. 28, 2020, for LPD’s internal investigation, Williams said he “utilized an arm bar and forced Mr. Tran to the ground,” according to a report in the case file. 

Tran’s recollection, as described in the lawsuit, differs. 

“Williams tackled Tran. Williams grabbed one of Tran’s arms, twisted it and lifted it, fracturing the proximal end of Tran’s left ulna, and dislocating his shoulder,” the civil case alleges. 

“Audio recordings of the encounter between Williams and Tran reveal that Tran was attempting to comply with Williams’ orders during the arrest procedure, but the full weight of Williams’ body was on Tran, and Tran could not release one of his arms,” the case continues. “Tran was calm during the arrest procedure, and he warned Williams that he was breaking his arm while Williams was tugging at it. Tran asked Williams to lift him a little bit so he could release his arm. Tran also ensured Williams he was not going to go anywhere. Tran asked Williams ‘why aren’t you listening to me?’ Tran pleaded with Williams, ‘you’re hurting me, man’ and ‘you’re breaking my arm.’ Tran repeated, ‘you’re breaking my arm, I’ll give you both of my hands, just get off me.’” 

In an Aug. 15, 2022 deposition, Tran testified that Williams “had stood up with my arm, I could — I can see my shoulder completely dislocated, stretching — my bone was stretching out my tattoo.” Tran said once he was able to move his right arm, he immediately grabbed his left arm because “it was completely mangled.”

When McCann arrived at the scene from a block away, Tran was face down on the ground, saying that Williams was breaking his arm, McCann testified during a Sept. 26, 2022 deposition. 

“I made some kind of cue to him (Williams) that that’s not the way we are trained to move the arms, so he stopped that movement and then brought it back the way he was supposed to,” McCann said, according to the transcript. 

Click to reveal images Tran shared on Facebook of his injuries.

Tran was taken to the Douglas County jail (where his cell had no water, he said during his deposition) and booked on suspicion of two felonies: aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer and interference with a law enforcement officer. 

Tran “answered no to all medical questions” when he was booked; within half an hour, he asked staff if the jail’s body scanner could see if his arm was broken, but refused an examination, according to LPD’s internal investigation report. He was given an ice pack and tylenol, and taken to the hospital the next morning, according to the report. 

Tran’s examination at the hospital revealed that his left ulna — elbow — was broken. “Tran also believes his shoulders were dislocated during the arrest and he popped them back into place,” according to the case file. 

Tran was released the following Monday (July 1, 2019), a little more than 36 hours later, without being charged. It’s not uncommon for someone to be arrested and booked into the jail, released without being charged, then charged later. 

An infectious disease specialist who saw Tran a few weeks later wrote in a report that he thought it was “more likely than not” that Tran acquired a community-associated methicillin-resistant staph infection (MRSA) on his skin during his stay at the jail. 

Mark Schoenhofer, a Wichita-based defense attorney, sent a letter to Chief Burns dated July 8, 2019, asking him to preserve all evidence in Tran’s arrest. A copy of the letter, obtained from an open record request to the City of Lawrence, shows it was marked “Scanned” on July 11, 2019. 

Then-Chief Assistant Douglas County District Attorney Amy McGowan on July 12, 2019 charged Tran with three misdemeanors: interference with law enforcement; assault of a law enforcement officer; and failure to obey lawful order of a police officer.

Copied on Schoenhofer’s letter to Burns was Kurt Kerns, another Wichita-based attorney, who was familiar with Brad Williams’ name. 

Kerns had sent a letter to Burns a few months earlier to alert him that Williams and another officer had falsified testimony in a Lawrence Municipal Court case Kerns defended.

City v. O’Connor: February 2018

Kerns represented Jameson O’Connor, who was arrested Feb. 4, 2018 at The Hawk, a popular college bar near KU’s campus. 

O’Connor, 22 at the time, said he was asking an officer a question. The officers alleged that he criminally interfered in an investigation. 

Then-Lawrence police officer Brian Wonderly, along with Williams, was conducting a bar check, looking for underage drinkers. Wonderly detained O’Connor’s younger sister, who was not yet 21. 

O’Connor said he asked why his sister was being escorted out. O’Connor and both officers reported that Wonderly told O’Connor to “back the f— up” or “get the f— back.” The officers alleged O’Connor replied that he “will not get the f— back,” which he denied. 

O’Connor said he asked Wonderly again, and then was “accosted” by Williams, who ordered him to drop the drinks in his hands, then “restrained my arms behind my back and ordered me to stop resisting him, which I did not do at any point.”

In an audio recording from a dashcam video immediately following the arrest, Wonderly said he didn’t think O’Connor had pushed him and did not think Williams should charge O’Connor with battery. 

“I probably kept pushing him (O’Connor) and that’s why I got drink spilled all over me,” Wonderly said in a recording. “… Yeah, he definitely, like, puffed his chest out and kind of walked at me, but yeah, I don’t think he, like, grabbed or pushed or anything.”

But Williams later wrote in his report that he saw O’Connor “chest bump” Wonderly. He did not write that Wonderly, the alleged victim, said it didn’t happen. That could have been material exculpatory information. 

Listen to the recording below (note: recording contains expletives).

The officers did not interview other potential witnesses, nor collect surveillance footage from inside the bar.

O’Connor was charged with interference with law enforcement. 

This incident, like Tran’s, was before LPD got body cameras. The audio recordings did not pick up the interactions inside the bar. But still images from shaky surveillance video inside — collected by the defense — timestamped seconds apart show that Williams was talking to a young woman and not even looking up to see that O’Connor had moved to the side to allow Wonderly to pass. A separate video also shows Williams escorting O’Connor out the bar’s door seconds later, directly behind Wonderly and O’Connor’s sister. 

Wonderly and Williams both testified during a bench trial on July 19, 2018 in Lawrence Municipal Court, before now-retired Judge Scott Miller. 

Wonderly testified that he’d told another officer that he didn’t think Williams was going to charge O’Connor, but decided that “he’s a d— and he deserves it.” 

Williams testified that Wonderly “said that he went to push him back and Mr. O’Connor pushed him,” which was not what was stated on the recording. 

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When Kerns asked Williams about why his reports did not reflect Wonderly’s statement to him, he testified, “That would be Officer Wonderly’s observation. I reported my observations.”

Miller acquitted O’Connor, and the charge has been expunged from his record. 

Kerns wrote to then-Chief Burns on Feb. 12, 2019, providing a transcript of the officers’ testimony.

“A young man named Jameson O’Connor was falsely accused of a crime based upon falsified reports, and reports containing material omissions of fact drafted by officers Wonderly and Williams,” Kerns wrote. “… I take no pleasure in notifying you of the malfeasance of these two officers. However, in the interests of avoiding future incidents like this; we bring it to your attention so you can take corrective action.”

He also wrote that “Most disturbing to the Court – in acquitting Mr. O’Connor of all charges, was the clear discrepancy between what the officers wrote in their reports – compared to what they discussed among themselves on their own surveillance cameras.”

Municipal court is not a court of record. Kerns had the officers’ testimony transcribed, but not the rest of the trial, so the judge’s ruling was missing from the partial transcript.

The judge’s ruling would not be transcribed until more than two years later — for Duc Tran’s criminal case. 

Internal investigation: Kerns’ complaint

Kerns would not receive a response to his letter until June 2020, roughly 16 months later.

David Ernst, now a lieutenant, was the sergeant overseeing the Lawrence Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) at the time. The OPA handles internal investigations. Ernst completed an investigation into Kerns’ complaint, in two parts. 

Burns resigned from his position in May 2020 (and entered into a separation agreement with the city that included a payout of more than $100,000 and a “mutual non-disparagement” clause). 

It’s not clear from the case file exactly when the bulk of Ernst’s investigation was completed, but he interviewed then-Assistant City Prosecutor Lauren Summers on July 17, 2019, according to the undated report.

Within days of Burns’ departure, Ernst met with then-Interim Chief Anthony Brixius to discuss the status of current OPA investigations. Ernst wrote in a report that he informed Brixius that Burns had not formally reviewed the investigation into Williams’ conduct in O’Connor’s case, and the department had not replied to Kerns’ letter. 

Summers told Ernst that Kerns did not present the surveillance video from The Hawk during O’Connor’s bench trial because he did not have the “proper legal foundation” to do so, according to Ernst’s report. She also said she did not recall “any mention by the court of the discrepancies between the police reports and in-car video.” 

Ernst wrote in a report that based on his review of the case, “I was unable to locate any glaring discrepancies in what the officers discussed, wrote in their reports or testified to.”

“The biggest inconsistency I noted was Officer Wonderly believing he was pushing Mr. O’Connor away with his arm and Officer Williams perceiving Mr. O’Connor ‘chest bumping’ or pushing against Officer Wonderly,” Ernst wrote. “Both officers discussed their perspective at the scene and their reports reflect their perspective.”

Ernst did not contact Kerns or O’Connor, or obtain the video from The Hawk, as part of the internal investigation. 

After Burns’ departure, a police captain asked Ernst to get a statement from Judge Miller. Ernst interviewed Miller on June 2, 2020, according to the report — nearly two years after the bench trial. 

He “advised he could not recall making any direct statements on officer malfeasance. Judge Miller advised a transcript of his ruling would be needed to refresh his memory,” according to Ernst’s report. “Judge Miller also advised if he had a concern with an officer(s) falsifying evidence or providing false testimony he would contact the police department.”

Ernst’s report was completed, and Williams exonerated, before the transcript of Judge Miller’s ruling was produced. 

“I determined Officer Williams properly discharged the duties assigned to him and was truthful in his testimony,” Ernst concluded the report.

Brixius wrote back to Kerns on June 8, 2020, saying LPD’s investigation found that Williams “did not violate department policy or state statute.” 

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‘Accuracy is incredibly important’

Mark Schoenhofer — the attorney who put the city on notice of a potential claim after Tran’s June 2019 arrest — represented Tran in the criminal case once it was filed. 

Tran was formally charged on Sept. 6, 2019. In January 2020, Schoenhofer requested “Giglio” information about Officer Williams from the Douglas County district attorney’s office. 

“I am certain that there is Giglio information,” Schoenhofer wrote back to the assistant district attorney who informed him there was none. 

Put simply, Brady v. Maryland and Giglio v. United States were landmark cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors must provide to defense attorneys all evidence that could show that a defendant is not guilty. That includes information that could make a jury question a particular witness’s credibility — for instance, if a witness had been granted immunity in exchange for their testimony.

If a law enforcement officer commits a “Brady” violation, that would generally mean they had withheld exculpatory evidence — evidence that shows a defendant might be innocent — or they had fabricated evidence. “Giglio” evidence would generally include information showing that an officer had been untruthful, had shown racial bias, had a criminal history or history of professional complaints, and more. All of it can be critical to a defendant getting a fair trial, and many prosecutors won’t allow officers with Brady-Giglio violations in their pasts to testify in their cases.

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Lies from law enforcement can lead to guilty defendants walking free, innocent defendants getting convicted, and crime victims getting no justice and no closure. As we’ve reported, the Douglas County district attorney has dismissed serious felony cases, including at least one homicide, because prosecutors could not use an officer’s testimony.

In an undated memo in Tran’s civil case file, Ernst wrote that he informed former Douglas County DA Charles Branson during a phone call on Jan. 24, 2020, in the presence of Brixius, that Kerns had alleged Williams was untruthful in court during a previous trial, and that Schoenhofer was likely aware of that allegation. He also informed Branson that LPD was unable to substantiate any of Kerns’ claims, according to the memo. 

“Mr. Branson advised if the claims were not substantiated then he did not want to review the file. I informed Mr. Branson I would respond to his e-mail advising we did not have any Giglio information for Officer Williams,” Ernst wrote. 

Schoenhofer did not drop the issue there. He argued in a motions hearing on Aug. 24, 2020 that Tran’s constitutional rights had been violated.

“One simply cannot trust the results of a criminal justice process, if a jury is allowed to unknowingly convict based on the testimony and evidence of a dishonest police officer,” Schoenhofer wrote in a motion to dismiss the case. “Allowing such a conviction to stand would be to ignore every principle for which our administration of justice stands.”

The now-retired Douglas County District Court judge pro tem, James George, ruled at the hearing that prosecutors should have turned over Kerns’ complaint to the defense; however, he did not find that the prosecutors’ failure to turn over the information had prejudiced Tran’s right to a fair trial, because Schoenhofer knew about the information. He did not dismiss the case at that time, and it was set to proceed to trial. 

But George filed a “Notice of Reconsideration” on Oct. 20, 2020, after obtaining a transcript of Judge Miller’s ruling in O’Connor’s case and a copy of the LPD’s internal investigation into Kerns’ complaint. 

According to the transcript, Miller said he found that there was reasonable doubt about whether O’Connor had “any intention to obstruct” when he came face-to-face with the police officers, based upon the crowded conditions of the bar, the brief period of the interactions, and O’Connor’s testimony. 

Miller said before acquitting O’Connor: “The City’s case has a lot of problems. Whether it was read with any sort of dramatic interpretation, … the conversation about what happened as reflected by the cameras compared to the portions of the reports that were introduced into evidence gives the court great pause, specifically the testimony about the chest bump in that situation. Because there was a lot of testimony about that and a long conversation about that prior to Officer Williams writing his report and the report that was written, at least the portion that was omitted, are consistent with that conversation.

“That’s troubling and problematic to the court because accuracy is incredibly important in a situation like this,” Miller continued. “Whether it’s this defendant or any other defendant, having an accurate report that accurately reflects a situation is of paramount importance and that’s not an amenable problem in this situation.”

George wrote in the notice of reconsideration in Tran’s case: 

“Comparing Judge Miller’s ruling stated verbatim in the transcript with the description of Judge Miller’s ruling in the investigative file caused the court to reconsider the ruling that defendant was not prejudiced by the State’s failure to provide defendant with Giglio material. Accordingly, the court is reconsidering whether this case should be dismissed due to the State’s failure to provide defendant with Giglio material or whether some other sanction should be applied.”

George gave prosecutors and Schoenhofer one month to file additional written arguments about whether the case should be dismissed.

Prosecutors moved to dismiss the charges against Tran “for necessity” on Nov. 10, 2020. 

Altogether, Tran’s criminal case was pending more than 16 months before it was ultimately dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled. 

Tran was never interviewed for LPD’s investigation into Williams’ conduct in the arrest. The investigation ultimately ended with “insufficient evidence to prove or disprove a policy violation. This complaint is not-sustained,” Ernst wrote.

After the transcript became available, Ernst provided a copy to Miller and filed a supplement to his investigation into Kerns’ complaint about Officers Williams and Wonderly. 

“Judge Miller advised there was great pause because the reports did not reflect all aspects of the conversation,” Ernst wrote. “Judge Miller further stated the reports themselves, while incomplete, were not untrue because the officers reported their individual perspectives.”

He wrote that he asked Miller whether, after reviewing the transcript, he had any concerns about officers falsifying evidence or providing false testimony.

“Judge Miller advised there was nothing that was clear to the court,” Ernst wrote. “Judge Miller advised there was enough ambiguity in the situation and did not feel like the step of contacting the police department was warranted.”

“I reported back to Interim Chief Brixius the statement obtained from Judge Miller,” the supplement continues. “It was noted the statement was consistent with the finding of the investigation that the officers documented their perspective of the incident. Interim Chief Brixius requested this statement be added to the OPA file and noted there would be no change in the disposition of the OPA case.”

The fallout

Tran’s criminal case was prosecuted under former DA Branson’s administration; however, it has impacted the policies of District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, who took office in January 2021.

The DA’s office did not have a formal, written Brady-Giglio policy until Valdez implemented hers in January 2022. 

Valdez’s Brady-Giglio policy asks law enforcement agencies to share information about “allegations” of misconduct made against their officers — not just “findings” of misconduct. 

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The inclusion of “allegations” in the policy is rooted in Tran’s criminal case. The DA’s office has stood by the policy, despite objections from law enforcement. Law enforcement has challenged the policy as being too broad, and invasive of officers’ personal information. 

Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden has said that the Lawrence Police Department has been working to come into compliance with the DA’s policy, but other area law enforcement agencies have not. In particular, prosecutors have been in a standoff with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office over the policy in recent months. 

And Williams, whose last day with LPD was Jan. 6, 2021, has had his law enforcement certification revoked; however, the reason was because he had shown bias in arresting far more women than men and was the subject of multiple complaints from young women. Evidence regarding the incidents mentioned in this article was not introduced. (Read more about that at this link.) 

The case file includes documentation that shows LPD was aware of seven complaints filed against Williams while he was a deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, and that he was placed on four days of administrative leave in March 2017, prior to joining LPD in May 2017.

“All the complaints were determined to be unfounded or Mr. Williams was exonerated,” Officer Jon Barta wrote in Williams’ background investigation in the case file. “… Upon completion of my preliminary background investigation of Mr. Williams, I have no concerns regarding his knowledge or ability to be a successful police officer with our department.”

Tran’s civil case

Kerns — who represented O’Connor — and Wichita attorney Sean McGivern are representing Tran in the civil case. 

“Williams was allowed to break rules, including his excessive use of force in retaliation towards obstinate minor offenders. Here, the force used by Williams against Tran was maliciously and sadistically used to cause harm,” the lawsuit alleges. “Chief Burns did not even look into the complaint filed in the O’Connor matter. He simply did not care. Chief Burns had the power and responsibility to prevent, or aid in the prevention of, the misconduct that took place. He could have, and should have, done so by exercising reasonable diligence.”

The judge previously dropped several other parties from the lawsuit, including McGowan, former Assistant District Attorney LeTiffany Obozele, the Lawrence City Commission, Lawrence Police Department, Douglas County and the Douglas County Commission. 

The attorneys’ arguments and the judge’s ruling are largely focused on unrelated cases that have set legal precedents. Judge Kathryn Vratil ruled that Williams was not entitled to qualified immunity on Tran’s claim of malicious prosecution, and she wrote in her ruling that a 2012 case had “established a ‘right to be free from a forceful takedown’ when, as here, plaintiff had already stopped, presented no indications of dangerousness and was not resisting arrest.”

20230201-Tran-order

The case was set to go to trial March 13 on six counts, according to the judge’s order: Tran’s Fourth Amendment excessive force claim against Williams; his Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim against Williams; his battery claim against Williams; his common law malicious prosecution claim against Williams; his battery claim against the city; and his common law malicious prosecution claim against the city. 

Tran sought $3 million for pain, suffering and mental anguish, and $1 million in punitive damages, as well as payment for some medical bills. 

According to an order filed Tuesday, the parties notified the court on Feb. 21 that they had reached a settlement. Details of the settlement were not immediately clear Wednesday. The parties must file a stipulation of dismissal in the case by March 6. 

Williams’ attorney declined to comment for this article. Attorneys representing the city did not respond to an email seeking comment.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

More coverage: Brady/Giglio disclosures

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times

Judge: Douglas County DA did not withhold information that should’ve been turned over to defense attorney

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A judge has ruled that prosecutors did not withhold information that should have been turned over to a defense attorney regarding an ex-deputy accused of violating law and policy. This case, the latest to highlight an ongoing conflict between the DA and the sheriff, leaves some questions lingering.

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