In November 2013, Kansas City police investigating a reported carjacking shot Philippe Lora — 20 times, according to his attorney — leaving him partly paralyzed.
When Lora filed a lawsuit saying that he was unarmed and that the officers used excessive force, the department paid $4.8 million in one of the largest settlements in the department’s history.
Three months after police agreed to the payment, a panel of high-ranking police officials who reviewed the shooting found no fault with the officers’ training or use of force.
The shooting was presented to a grand jury and no charges were filed. The two officers who shot Lora, Dakota Merrill and Shane Mellot, are still on the force.
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Lora, meanwhile, is partly paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. The 41-year-old lives in a new house east of downtown and will require medical treatment for the rest of his life, his attorney says.
The settlement has remained secret for years.
Kansas City police officials said they cannot confirm the settlement exists. But it appears, partly redacted, on a list of the department’s settlement payments.
One of the settlement conditions was that Lora not discuss how he was shot, and he declined to speak with a Star reporter who visited his home.
Lora’s attorney, David Smith, said he thought race was a factor in the case. The alleged carjacking victim, and the officers involved in the shooting, were white. Lora is black.
“I believe race definitely heightened the officers’ fear,” Smith said. “They were told by the alleged victim — a white man from the suburbs on Independence Avenue at 2 a.m. in the morning — that he had been carjacked at gunpoint by a black man.
“However, the police had information that the alleged victim was lying yet went on the wild goose chase for the dangerous black man anyway.”
Smith said Lora did not commit a carjacking and had no gun. Police have no record of finding a gun at the scene of the shooting.
According to police reports, the incident that led to the shooting began about 1:45 a.m. on Nov. 18, 2013, when a 36-year-old man called police from a convenience store at Independence and Highland avenues to report that he had been carjacked at gunpoint.
The man told police he had been driving along Independence Avenue when a woman flagged him down and said she needed a ride because she was about to get “jumped.”
The woman got into his SUV — a 2003 Toyota RAV4 — and he lent her his phone to make a call, he said, when a man let himself into the back seat of the vehicle, pointed a gun at him, and said “get the (expletive) out of the car.”
The alleged carjacking victim said he got out of the RAV4 and watched the woman and the man drive away, northbound on Brooklyn Avenue.
Still inside the vehicle was the man’s phone, which police tracked electronically.
Officers Merrill and Mellot joined the search and found the RAV4 about 10 minutes later, two miles east of the convenience store, parked in an alley behind a house.
Dash cam video from the officers’ patrol car shows them examining the RAV4 with their flashlights and then step away from it, backing their car away in the alley.
Smith says the officers could not see into the vehicle because its windows were tinted.
Minutes later, the video shows the RAV4, which was parked up against a fence, begin to move — first backing up a few feet, then pulling forward a few feet.
Within six seconds, Merrill and Mellot, now joined by a third officer, run to the RAV4 and begin shooting. The third officer did not fire his weapon, according to police.
Lora’s lawsuit said he was alone and unarmed and had made no threatening movements. He was taken to a hospital in critical condition.
Twenty bullets hit Lora, with one remaining lodged against his spine, according to Smith.
A later summary of the incident by police said the officers “made contact” with Lora in the driver’s seat and ordered him to get out, but he did not.
According to that account, the officers then “heard the sounds of apparent gunshots” coming from inside the vehicle.
Lora’s suit accused police of conspiring to “escape accountability” for the shooting by reporting that they heard gunshots coming from the car — something that could not have happened because Lora had no gun.
Lora was never charged in connection with the reported carjacking.
Vernon Howard Jr., president of the Greater Kansas City Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has led numerous protests against police shootings in Kansas City. But he said recently he was surprised to hear of the Lora shooting and the large settlement.
“If this is true, then it begs the question: Why was there no acknowledgment of wrongdoing?” Howard asked. “Why would there be a $4.8 million payout if there was no wrongdoing?”
Within six months of filing suit, Lora reached the $4.8 million settlement with the Police Department and a judge ordered it sealed. The settlement wasn’t revealed to the public for nearly three years.
In a Police Department list of settlements, Lora’s is redacted — who was paid, for what and when — leaving only the dollar amount.
The motion to seal the settlement agreement from public view came from Lora’s attorney Smith, who explained the reasons in a court filing in June 2014.
The public’s need to know about the settlement was outweighed, Smith wrote, by the impact that public knowledge would have on Lora.
Lora, he wrote, “is from a large, loving family in the Kansas City area, most of whom are in financial need.”
Lora’s injuries, he wrote “are severe and progressive and will require extensive future care, requiring all available proceeds to provide for such care and living arrangements.”
Smith also noted the possible impact of the settlement on the grand jury proceedings then pending against the police officers. For that reason too, he asked that the settlement be closed, “in unmistakeable Christian forgiveness and in appreciation for the expedited nature of these proceedings.”
About 10 months after the shooting, after Lora’s civil suit was settled, an internal panel of police officials met to review the shooting, as is standard practice according to department policy. The panel included majors and captains from the patrol bureau, the violent crimes division and senior officers from the crime lab and firearms section.
Those panels review all critical use of force incidents, including officer-involved shootings, said Capt. Stacey Graves, a Police Department spokeswoman. The panel is meant to review the incident and recommend any department policies to be reviewed or changed.
In their report on the Lora shooting, where officials note whether they recommend any changes to policy or training, they marked “no.”
The review panel is not tasked with determining whether the officers violated policy, Graves said. Any policy violations found by internal affairs would not be a public record.
Mellot had been on job for less than a year when the shooting occurred. He remains assigned to patrol, Graves said.
Merrill had been with the department for less than two years at the time of the shooting. He is now assigned to property crimes in the patrol bureau.
The shooting panel report says the officers fired their guns because they were in fear for their lives.
“No deficiencies were noted relative to training and/or use of force,” the report says. “All facts indicate that the officers were responding to deadly threats by the suspect and only fired to protect their lives and that of others.”