A Ramsey County sheriff’s correctional officer resigned last week, a year after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in connection with his treatment of an inmate.
After Travis VanDeWiele pushed on Terrell Johnson’s head and Johnson complained of excessive force, VanDeWiele responded, “You ain’t seen excessive force yet” and punched the restrained man four times in his abdomen or chest area, according to the criminal complaint against VanDeWiele.
Terrell Johnson is seen after his April 13, 2016 arrest. Ramsey County sheriff’s correctional officer Travis Vandewiele was charged with assault against Johnson at the Ramsey County jail. That charge was later dismissed and Vandewiele pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. (Courtesy of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office)
Johnson, then 24, was having a hard time talking, but he managed to say, “Please don’t kill me,” the complaint continued.
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who was not working at the sheriff’s office at the time of the incident, said Monday the events captured on video from three years ago “are extremely disturbing to me and other members of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department.”
In addition to VanDeWiele’s departure, the sergeant on duty at the time of the Johnson case left the sheriff’s office in March 2017, a month after VanDeWiele was charged.
Fletcher said the video “demonstrated failed supervision and poor training.”
“The supervisor present and all employees witnessing these actions had a duty to intervene to stop the assaultive tactics and the use of excessive force,” Fletcher wrote in a statement. “The conduct captured on the video will not be tolerated under my watch. Misconduct will be investigated expeditiously and if personnel are found at fault, discipline will be swift and thorough.”
CORRECTIONAL OFFICER’S ATTORNEY ARGUED IT WAS AUTHORIZED FORCE
An acting correctional sergeant recorded video of the 2016 incident and VanDeWiele’s attorney, Kevin Beck, filed a copy of it in the court case.
Beck sought to have the case dismissed and wrote in a filing that prosecutors did not produce any evidence that VanDeWiele “used unreasonable force to gain the compliance of an uncooperative inmate.”
Ramsey County District Judge George Stephenson dismissed Beck’s motion, writing it would be up to a jury to decide whether “the alleged assault was justified as authorized use of force.” Based on the complaint and the court record, Stephenson found there was probable cause to believe VanDeWiele was in violation of the fifth-degree assault statute.
The Minneapolis city attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case to avoid a conflict for their St. Paul counterparts, reached a plea deal with VanDeWiele last year. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, and the fifth-degree assault charge was dropped. The result was a conviction for the same level of misdemeanor, said Casper Hill, a spokesman for the Minneapolis city attorney’s office.
VanDeWiele was sentenced to 90 days in the workhouse, which was set aside for one year. He was sentenced to probation to the court for a year and he completed it last month, Hill said.
Neither VanDeWiele nor his attorney could be reached for comment Monday.
VanDeWiele was hired at the sheriff’s office in 2014. He was on administrative leave for two years and was paid $121,555 during that time.
He is listed as the co-head coach of the East Ridge High School wrestling program in Woodbury.
WAS USING ‘PAIN COMPLIANCE’
On April 13, 2016, after St. Paul police arrested Johnson for theft, dispatch notified the jail that officers “were bringing in an unruly inmate,” according to the complaint against VanDeWiele.
Deputies were told it took officers 10 minutes to get Johnson into a squad car, police had sprayed him with a chemical irritant and he “would likely spit at the deputies,” the complaint continued.
Johnson, who was handcuffed, spit at the ground in the direction of VanDeWiele’s leg, the complaint said. VanDeWiele told him to step out of the squad or he would drag him out. Johnson started to get out, but fell to the ground.
A “spit hood” was put on Johnson, which covered his mouth. Four sheriff’s employees, including VanDeWiele, surrounded Johnson to try to secure him to a transport chair.
“Mr. Johnson was resisting, pushing his hips up and jail workers told Johnson “a number of times to sit back and/or down,” the complaint said.
One worker said if Johnson didn’t sit back, one of them “should use pain compliance on him,” according to the complaint. VanDeWiele did, pushing on Johnson’s jaw.
VanDeWiele also used his knee to strike him twice in the abdomen and Johnson “called the deputies an obscene name,” the complaint continued.
VanDeWiele’s attorney wrote that the correctional officer tried to deliver two knee strikes to Johnson’s thigh to gain compliance, but “due to Johnson’s thrashing around, the knee strikes were delivered closer to Johnson’s abdomen.”
When VanDeWiele “started pushing hard on Mr. Johnson’s jaw/neck area, applying pain compliance, Mr. Johnson tried to stand,” the complaint said. Following that, VanDeWiele punched him.
ON LEAVE, THEN CHARGED
Three days after the incident, VanDeWiele was placed on paid administrative leave. He returned from leave later that month.
The Washington County sheriff’s office opened an investigation into VanDeWiele’s actions in April 2016. Washington County prosecutors reviewed the case and did not file felony charges, at which point the case was sent to Minneapolis prosecutors for review.
After the court case was wrapped up last year, the sheriff’s office conducted an internal affairs investigation. In October, VanDeWiele began an appeal process, but informed the sheriff’s office in January he would resign. He submitted his resignation on Thursday.
Matt Bostrom, who was sheriff in 2016, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Fletcher said he has reviewed the sheriff’s office training and policies since he took office in January and also appointed a new detention superintendent to oversee the jail.