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Police Officer's Use of Force Gives Man Brain Damage

If he wanted to, Francis Nunez could tell a story about a police officer's use of force. But he remains silent - his injuries do the talking instead.

Above his left eye, cuts and abrasions mingle with patches of new pink skin. A large C-shaped scar on the right side of his skull marks where surgeons operated on his brain. His nose is as misshapen as a boxer's.

After leading police on a brief middle-of-the-night foot chase last month, Nunez, 22, was beaten with a heavy-duty flashlight by a Reading officer who outweighed him by more than 100 pounds. The altercation left him with a fractured face and a brain injury for which he will require therapy.

Nunez has told his lawyer he doesn't remember anything after the first blow.

As he recovers from his injuries, Reading police are conducting a type of internal review that is standard after any incident in which significant force is used. If the officer, Mark Groff, is found to have violated policy, he could be disciplined or ordered to go through remedial training.

Chief William Heim cautioned against prejudging the evidence.

"It's very, very important for us to look as much as we can into the totality of the circumstances, and look at what a reasonable police officer would have done under similar circumstances," he said.

Nunez himself has been charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and escape after police said he fought with Groff and threatened him with a pair of pliers. A judge has ordered Nunez to stand trial.

A check of the Berks County court docket did not turn up any prior record for Nunez.

At a preliminary hearing for Nunez last week, Groff said he felt his life was endangered.

"I had no time to react. I thought I was about to be stabbed. I struck him with a flashlight," said Groff, a 14-year police veteran.

The story began unfolding around 3 a.m. on March 14, when officers responding to a car crash were told that one of the drivers had fled on foot.

Groff, checking the area for a suspect, thought Nunez fit the description he had been given. When he got out of his cruiser to investigate, Nunez took off, ignoring Groff's shouts of "Stop; police!" Nunez jumped several fences before stumbling and falling in a darkened backyard.

As Groff caught up to him, Nunez scrambled to his feet. The officer testified that he saw Nunez reach for a metallic object in his waistband that he thought was a knife but turned out to be the pliers.

Groff said he hit Nunez with the flashlight three times, then pounced on him. The flashlight rolled away and Groff said he began using his fists. He said Nunez — though prone — continued to resist until backup arrived.

Groff stands 5 feet 9 and weighs 260 pounds. Nunez, 5 feet 5 and 150 pounds, was in bad shape as he arrived at Reading Hospital in a paddy wagon.

The beating caused a subdural hematoma, or bleeding on the brain. Nunez underwent an emergency craniotomy and stayed in the hospital for five days. A report by the attending physician said Nunez will need cognitive therapy.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, an expert on police behavior, said officers have the legal right to use force, "but only as much force as is necessary to make the arrest and protect themselves."

He said any review will hinge on the amount of resistance that Groff had to overcome to subdue his suspect.

"Until we know that, we don't know how much force he could use," Harris said. "The use of a hard object ... has the potential to cause serious injury or even death. It doesn't mean the police officer can't use that amount of force. But it has to be a situation where it is called for — where that amount of force is necessary to get the job done. Not just preferable or easier for the officer, but necessary."

Berks County District Attorney John Adams, who said he knew nothing about the beating until told of it this week by The Associated Press, pledged his own investigation: "Absolutely, we will look into it."

Nunez, who is married and has a child, has declined to comment. His defense attorney, Joel Merow, said he may petition to have the charges dropped because Nunez can't remember the altercation and is unable to assist in his own defense.

Merow withheld comment on the beating itself, saying he expects to learn more through the discovery process. He's also seeking witnesses.

He said he doesn't know why Nunez ran from police. Though Nunez was initially suspected in the hit-and-run, he hasn't been charged.

The officer who investigated the hit-and-run did not immediately return a phone call for more information.

"At this point, I assume they have the wrong guy," Merow said. "He informs me he wasn't in an accident that night."