A man is demanding $2.5 million from the city of Tempe, saying a “hyperaggressive” police officer with a known history of using unnecessary force against unarmed Black men held him at gunpoint while looking for a white suspect.
Body-camera video first reported by The Arizona Republic shows Tempe police Officer Ronald Kerzaya holding hotel employee Trevonyae Cumpian at gunpoint for minutes. Cumpian has decided to file suit.
Kerzaya was looking for a white man wearing a black shirt and tan pants. Cumpian, 28, was wearing his work uniform, which identified him as a hotel employee. The incident came months after Kerzaya and the department came under fire for a 2019 incident where Kerzaya used a stun gun on Ivaughn Oakry who was holding his 1-year-old child in his own home.
The notice of claim filed Wednesday also alleges the department attempted to cover up the hotel incident and a lack of action in the Oakry incident reinforced to officers that it was acceptable to use force without hesitation.
“How many times may the same hyperaggressive Tempe police officer terrorize a black man on video before Tempe Police Officials stop trying to gaslight the public into excusing his behavior?” the claim questions.
Cumpian is represented by Heather Hamel and Steve Benedetto with The People’s Law Firm — which is also representing Oakry — and Florida-based civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump.
Crump, an attorney who was nicknamed “Black America’s attorney general” by civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton, most recently represented the family of Breonna Taylor. Louisville city officials settled the case for $12 million — one of the largest payouts in the U.S. for the shooting of a Black American by police.
He has also represented numerous other families involved in police brutality cases including the family of Wisconsin police shooting victim Jacob Blake and George Floyd, whose death in police custody in Minnesota sparked protests nationwide.
Tempe spokeswoman Nikki Ripley said the city had not received the notice of claim as of Wednesday morning. She noted the incident is still under internal investigation.
“The department’s initial assessment was that the incident was not handled with the professionalism or respectfulness that is expected of Tempe Police Officers,” she said.
‘This is a cautionary tale’
Both Crump and Cumpian spoke with The Republic just minutes after the news that the officers who shot Taylor would not face criminal charges for her death. Both men were clearly shaken by the news.
“Her mother wanted to try and define the legacy of Breonna Taylor and that legacy is to prevent future Breonna Taylors and therefore even though this grand jury indictment falls woefully short of what everyone wanted, that won’t define Breonna Taylor’s legacy. We will — her family will — define this Black women’s legacy,” Crump said.
Crump questioned why it took someone to be killed for officials and the public to realize Black lives matter. In Cumpian’s case, Crump said Cumpian’s experience isn’t any less valuable because he survived.
“This is a cautionary tale,” Crump said. “We’re sending a message that you all could be Kenosha, Wisc. You all could be Louisville. You all could be Minneapolis, Minn. right now. So don’t take this lightly – the fact that Trey survived. Do not try to marginalize this moment because it is certainly not marginalized for Trey and his mother and father.”
“Tempe, Ariz., don’t take this lightly,” Crump added. “Let’s do justice for Trey and let’s do justice for this community — for marginalized people of color.”
Crump’s co-counsel Steve Benedetto echoed that sentiment during a press conference early Wednesday afternoon.
“For Black lives to matter, they have to matter when they were permanently damaged by police violence as well,” Benedetto said.
Body-camera footage showed Kerzaya responding to the Hawthorn Suites hotel near Loop 101 in Tempe on Aug. 29, based on reports of an armed white man.
While searching for the man, the footage shows Kerzaya hold Cumpian at gunpoint despite Cumpian not matching the suspect description. Kerzaya would not lower his gun until he confirmed the man was a hotel employee.
Footage shows Kerzaya then pointing his weapon at three others as he searches for the suspect, who was never found.
“What is it about this officer that he pre-judges Black men as criminals?” Crump asked.
Crump said he learned about the case from Hamel and Benedetto. He was especially struck by the fact that this was the officer’s second case in recent months.
Even though Cumpian lived, Crump said a message needed to be that this is the conduct that leads to the death of Black people in the most “unbelievable, unjustifiable and senseless ways.”
Activists called for Kerzaya to be fired after the Oakry incident. Instead, the department stood by Kerzaya and the other officers involved following the Oakry incident.
An investigation determined their actions were within policy and Kerzaya underwent mandatory re-training in contact communication, defense tactics and enhanced de-escalation techniques. Zarra Teacola with Black Lives Matter Phoenix said the city has not listened to public calls for change last time.
“Obviously this man is too racist and unstable to be given a badge that’s apparently a license to kill,” Teacola said.
What does the notice of claim say?
The notice of claim calls for Kerzaya, who has since been moved to an administrative role pending an investigation, be terminated due to his “blatant and continual abusiveness toward Black men.”
The notice demanded $2.5 million would cover the emotional trauma Cumpian sustained and the required lifetime of therapy resulting from Kerzaya’s actions, according to the claim.
The claim also details an alleged cover-up by the department to keep Kerzaya’s past conduct quiet. The attorneys said officials attempted to avoid providing the officer’s badge number and, when they did, they provided Kerzaya’s middle name of Aaron, instead of Ronald. They later provided his full name and Cumpian quickly discovered Kerzaya was at the center of the multimillion-dollar excessive force lawsuit brought by Oakry.
“With the lid blown off its efforts to bury Kerzaya’s misconduct, Tempe Police leadership was forced to pivot to public acknowledgment,” the claim details.
This — coupled with pressure from the media — forced the department to respond, according to the claim. The claim details how the department spoke publicly of accountability and transparency while allegedly engaging in retaliatory and intimidation techniques against Cumpian and his boss.
“His waking hours are infiltrated with the stress of realizing that, if he hadn’t been successful at de-escalating Ronald Kerzaya’s hyperaggressive state, he could have been the next hashtag. And his 1-month-old daughter wouldn’t have a father,” the claim says.
Reach public safety reporter Bree Burkitt at email@example.com or at 602-444-8515. Follow her on Twitter at @breeburkitt.
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