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Lawsuits: Officer used excessive force in several cases

Eight brutality lawsuits settled over the past 10 months paint a disturbing picture of a former Connecticut police officer accused of beating people while they were handcuffed and ordering his police dog to attack others who were not resisting arrest.

Among other allegations, former Enfield officer Matthew Worden is accused of punching people in the face when they were already subdued, smashing a man's face to the pavement causing him to lose two front teeth, using a stun gun multiple times on a man with a heart condition and striking a man in the groin with a baton, causing him to lose consciousness.

In a ninth case that is pending, Worden and other Enfield officers are accused of smashing Tyler Damato's head into asphalt and shooting him with a stun gun on Christmas Day 2012, aggravating a traumatic head injury he suffered two months before when he was hit by a car. Minutes before the encounter, the man's mother warned police about her son's head injury.

Damato died in February 2013 after a car accident. He was 20. The lawsuit by his mother blames Worden and the other officers for his death because of the injuries they caused.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuits said they did nothing to warrant Worden's use of force.

Worden worked for the Enfield Police Department from 2004 to 2014. He was fired after an internal affairs investigation of a beating, but town officials later changed the termination to a resignation to settle his labor grievance over the firing.

Worden, 35, now an emergency medical technician, declined to comment on the lawsuits.

His attorney, Elliot Spector, called Worden the type of officer that was respected in the past.

"They would take aggressive action," Spector said about police years ago. "In today's world of policing, you kind of have to step back and accept minor crimes and be tolerant. It's all about de-escalating and being kinder and gentler. He didn't fit into today's culture."

Worden did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlements. Spector called many allegations "manufactured" and said the cases were settled because it was cheaper than going to trial.

"These were all people who violated the law and acted in a way that required use of force," Spector added.

A lawyer for several of the victims, A. Paul Spinella, disputed Spector's characterization of Worden.

"You have a police officer who was completely and totally out of control," Spinella said. "This officer and his group ran rampant through this town year after year after year."

Asked about Worden and the lawsuits, Enfield Police Chief Carl Sferrazza would only say, "It is what it is."

Town officials have refused to release any information about the settlements including payouts, which has sparked a legal fight involving public records laws.

Town officials rejected a request by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut to release some settlement information. Officials said the town's insurer settled the cases and keeps the records, arguing those records are not public documents. But the town council had approved the settlements.

The state Freedom of Information Commission rejected the town's arguments and ordered officials earlier this month to release the records to the ACLU. The town's attorney is expected to appeal that order to Superior Court.

In most publicized case against Worden, a police cruiser dashboard camera recorded Worden punching Mark Maher in the face as other officers had him pinned to the ground in 2014. Police said they were investigating possible illegal drug and alcohol use at a boat launch, while Maher said he was just smoking a cigarette with friends.

Maher was charged with interfering with police, but the charge was later dropped. His booking photo shows him with a serious injury to his right eye area, and he says he now has a permanent scar.

"He punched me quite a few times," Maher said. "He's just somebody who has a very short temper and can't control themselves, somebody who shouldn't have a badge and call himself an officer of the law."

Enfield police prepared a warrant to charge Worden with misdemeanor assault and fabricating evidence in the Maher case. But Hartford State's Attorney Gail Hardy rejected it, saying Worden didn't commit any crime.