The leader of the African American Leadership Council called for a federal investigation on Wednesday into the Ramsey County jailer who punched and kneed a restrained inmate.
Tyrone Terrill said he contacted the head of FBI’s Minneapolis division and requested they conduct an investigation into sheriff’s correctional officer Travis VanDeWiele’s treatment of Terrell Johnson at the Ramsey County jail on April 13, 2016.
“It’s definitely excessive force, so I think they’ll look at it,” Terrill said.
Video of the 2016 case, which was made public on Monday, has ignited a firestorm. The current sheriff, elected officials and community leaders condemned VanDeWiele’s actions and said they were equally dismayed that a group of jail employees stood by as it happened.
Asked whether the FBI is looking into the matter, a spokesman said that “by policy, we wouldn’t disclose anything about it other than to say we are aware of the case in Ramsey County.”
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LEGAL EXPERTS: FEDERAL CHARGES UNLIKELY, BUT LAWSUIT PROBABLE
Two local law professors said they think the probability is low that federal prosecutors would pursue criminal charges against VanDeWiele, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in state court last year.
“If they’ve gotten a conviction in state court, generally you don’t see it at the federal level unless the feds believe the punishment really wasn’t severe enough or if it becomes sufficiently high-profile enough of a case,” said David Schultz, a University of Minnesota law professor who also teaches political science at Hamline University.
In January, a federal grand jury indicted St. Paul police officer Brett Palkowitsch, alleging he used excessive force in kicking Frank Baker when he was on the ground and being bitten by a police dog in 2016. He had not been charged in state court.
Schultz and Bradford Colbert, who is director of the clinical program at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said they think there’s a good chance that Johnson will file a federal lawsuit against VanDeWiele and Ramsey County.
“You have a very graphic video, which will be incredibly damaging to the defense,” said Colbert, who also runs the Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners clinic.
IS 2016 CASE ‘TIP OF THE ICEBERG’?
The video, which was recorded by a jail sergeant, raises a larger question about whether there have been other, similar cases at the Ramsey County jail, Schultz said.
“Rarely does this happen in isolation,” he said. “The fact that other officers were standing around doing nothing suggests to me that this was not an uncommon occurrence. … This could very well be the proverbial tip of the iceberg.”
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, left, Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council, and Correctional Officer Joe McKinney, right, speak during a press conference about correctional officer Travis VanDeWiele using force against Terrell Johnson three years ago, in St. Paul, Feb. 26, 2019.( Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who didn’t work for the sheriff’s office in 2016, said getting to the bottom of that question “is very important to us.”
“At this point we haven’t identified any other instances that would suggest it occurred other times; however, there clearly is a question of what the culture was three years ago,” Fletcher said. “I don’t know how it’s changed since then, but I know we’re going to change it very, very quickly.”
Fletcher said he adopted a policy on Monday that requires a “duty to intervene” any time a staff member observes excessive force. He has also detailed other changes.
On Wednesday, Fletcher met with about 30 jail supervisors for 2½ hours.
“We discussed what had happened and we dissected every aspect of the video,” Fletcher said. “There’s universal disgust among the command staff and it’s clear there were several failures there.”
Beginning Wednesday night, jail sergeants are meeting with their staff to review the 2016 video and discuss what went wrong.
Matt Bostrom, who was sheriff in 2016, has not returned calls from the Pioneer Press.
Jack Serier — who was Bostrom’s chief deputy until he was appointed sheriff in 2017 — said he was told by the Ramsey County attorney’s office that he cannot comment because of employment law and the state data practices act.
FELONY VS. MISDEMEANOR ASSAULT
After the April 13, 2016, case, the Ramsey County sheriff’s office asked the Washington County sheriff’s office to conduct an independent investigation into VanDeWiele’s actions, which they began on April 29, 2016.
The Washington County attorney’s office reviewed the case and declined in January 2017 to charge VanDeWiele with a felony. The Minneapolis city attorney’s office, which handled the case to avoid a conflict of interest for their St. Paul counterparts, charged him with two counts of misdemeanor fifth-degree assault in February 2017.
VanDeWiele, 46, agreed to plead guilty to disorderly conduct, also a misdemeanor, in January 2018 and the assault charges were dismissed. He completed a year of probation.
But Schultz said he was struck by “how light” the charges seemed, based on what the video showed.
“If that had not been an officer, I think they would have certainly charged something other than a misdemeanor assault,” Colbert said.
However, Assistant Washington County Attorney Kevin Mueller said in his review of the case he did not feel he could prove beyond a reasonable doubt “that any injuries sustained as a result of any legally improper use of force by the correctional officer rose to the level of ‘substantial bodily harm’ as is required for a felony assault charge under Minnesota law.”
After the court case concluded, the sheriff’s office conducted an internal affairs investigation. VanDeWiele remained on administrative leave for two years and was paid $121,555 during that time.
The sheriff’s office was moving to terminate VanDeWiele, which he was appealing, but he submitted his resignation last week.