Former Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball star Melvin Newbern is suing a Robbinsdale police officer who knocked him to the ground while he was in handcuffs, resulting in a concussion.
Newbern, now a juvenile detention officer for Hennepin County, is alleging excessive force on the part of officer Brian Sloat and seeking more than $300,000 in damages.
Newbern was driving away from a doctor’s appointment around 10 a.m. on Feb. 13, 2013 when Sloat stopped him for allegedly swerving and possible intoxication, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court.
Several times, the officer ordered Newbern, who is 6 feet 5 and 330 pounds, to get into the squad car, but Newbern told Sloat that it was too difficult for him to do so.
After being handcuffed and placed under arrest, Newbern again told the officer he couldn’t get into the squad car, the suit says. Although Newbern wasn’t resisting arrest, Sloat kneed him in the back of his leg and he fell to the ground, hitting the left side of his head on the road, the suit said.
A minute before the officer used force, a squad car video recorded Newbern saying, “I’ll get on the ground” and “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”
“When you are handcuffed and you take out somebody’s leg, the risk of injury is high,” said Andrew Noel, Newbern’s attorney. “What else is going to happen?”
Robbinsdale Police Chief Steve Smith said Thursday that his department hasn’t been served with the suit and that he would have no comment on it. Smith did say that Sloat is a veteran officer in good standing.
There are no published reports that indicate that the Robbinsdale police force has previously been sued for excessive force.
As the result of the incident, Newbern was charged with obstructing the legal process but not drunken driving. In October, he pleaded guilty to petty misdemeanor disorderly conduct. He entered an Alford plea in the case, which allows a defendant to maintain innocence.
Newbern, 46, of Robbinsdale, was not available for comment Thursday. He has no criminal history other than a few minor traffic violations. Noel said he decided to sue the officer because, as somebody who works in the corrections field, the incident “just didn’t sit well with him.”
“He takes pride in his job and coaches kids in the community,” the attorney said. “He was very troubled by this breach of trust.”
Kneed, after a warning
In Sloat’s report, he said Newbern refused to get into his squad car because he said he was claustrophobic and that he wouldn’t fit. Sloat advised him he was under arrest and warned him that if he continued to refuse, he would knee him in the common peroneal area of Newbern’s leg.
When Newbern still wouldn’t get in, Sloat said in the report he delivered two knee strikes that gave him momentum and the leverage to place Newbern on the ground and maintain control over him. He then called for backup, and two officers helped him get Newbern into the squad car.
Before the knee strikes, Sloat said Newbern was bracing his body and “I could feel that he was tensing up and at times was attempting to twist or turn to face me and use his large stature to prevent me from placing him in the squad car.”
The Star Tribune obtained a copy of the squad car video. It doesn’t clearly show the moment when Newbern was kicked, but he can be heard screaming after the knee strikes. He also can be seen having difficulty getting into the squad car and can be heard telling Sloat that he can’t do it.
Newbern, who later was diagnosed with a concussion, went to work on the day of the incident. He later complained of blurred vision, a headache and lack of balance and was unable to work for a month. His symptoms have significantly improved but haven’t gone away, Noel said.
A soft-spoken star
In a 2005 Star Tribune article, Newbern was quoted as saying that one of the reasons he could relate well to people in his field of juvenile corrections is because he once was an at-risk youth himself.
“I grew up ghetto, so to speak, in the inner city, but I always knew I was going to make it, because my siblings did, and because my mom was there for us,” he said.
In the late 1980s, Newbern was a captain and star point guard on Clem Haskins’ men’s basketball team at the university. In 1990, the team he was on got within one game of making the Final Four, losing a thriller to Georgia Tech.
Newbern played one season for the Detroit Pistons in the NBA and for several European teams. He also coached a local women’s community college basketball team.
Noel said Newbern is a soft-spoken man who wasn’t enraged when he approached the attorney about filing a lawsuit. Noel didn’t hesitate to say that he believes Newbern’s traffic stop was race-based.
“He was never refusing during the incident,” he said. “You can’t do what they did to him when he was in handcuffs.”