Authorities released video that shows a Minnesota jail officer punching and kneeing a handcuffed black man who can be heard pleading for his life as other officers restrain him.
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher on Monday released video of the 2016 incident, which happened before his term. In a statement, Fletcher called the video “extremely disturbing,” and said he is making changes, including appointing a new detention superintendent to oversee the jail.
“The conduct captured on the video will not be tolerated under my watch,” the sheriff said.
Travis VanDeWiele, who is white, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct last month and has resigned. VanDeWiele had been a Ramsey County sheriff’s correctional officer since 2014. He has been on paid administrative leave for the last two years.
The suspect who is being punched and kneed is Terrell James Johnson, then 24, who was brought in on a theft case.
The April 13, 2016, video was filmed by an “acting or temporary” correctional sergeant on duty. VanDeWiele is one of about five officers seen removing Johnson from a St. Paul police squad car at the Ramsey County jail.
According to the charges against VanDeWiele, Johnson had been sprayed with a chemical agent. He is handcuffed with his pants around his ankles. Johnson is lifted into a wheelchair-like “transport chair” after he falls to the ground limp.
VanDeWiele repeatedly orders Johnson to sit back as the suspect’s hips remain raised. The video then shows VanDeWiele kneeing Johnson twice in the stomach, causing Johnson to protest and call all five officers “pigs.”
When Johnson accuses the officers of using excessive force, VanDeWiele responds: “You ain’t seen excessive force yet” before punching Johnson four times in the torso.
“Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me, I’m sorry,” Johnson pleads in the video.
He eventually is secured in the chair and wheeled into jail. Johnson pleaded guilty to one count of theft in August 2016.
This week’s video release came after a lengthy legal case for VanDeWiele. A sheriff’s office employee raised concerns about the incident, and authorities from nearby Washington County were asked to investigate. Prosecutors from that county did not file felony charges. The case was then sent to Minneapolis prosecutors for review and VanDeWiele was charged with misdemeanors in February 2017.
The case’s end was followed by an internal affairs investigation. VanDeWiele agreed to resign last week, and Fletcher — elected sheriff in November — moved to release the video.
The St. Paul branch of the NAACP and other organizations condemned “the horrific, racist and discriminatory treatment.” County commissioners on Tuesday spent time discussing the incident and its effects on the community.
Ramsey County Board Chairman Jim McDonough said “the racial dynamics” are alarming of “a white officer acting upon a black male with a group of predominantly white officers present.”
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter called the actions shown in the video “torture.”
“We can’t separate the individual actions from the law enforcement culture that allowed him to feel like it was OK to do that and that allowed several deputies to stand around and watch it take place,” Carter said.
In a court filing, VanDeWiele’s attorney wrote that prosecutors did not produce any evidence that the officer “used unreasonable force to gain the compliance of an uncooperative inmate.”
County commissioners said Tuesday they’ll do whatever it takes to prevent a recurrence.
“We do take this seriously — very seriously — and need to do everything that we can to correct this to make sure something like this does not happen again,” Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said.
Commissioner Toni Carter added: “There is a strand of Jim Crow-like culture that continues to exist even into this very day.”