50-plus supporters, many of them police officers, attended hearing.
At a court hearing Thursday, more than 50 people turned out in support of Minneapolis police Sgt. David Clifford, who is charged with assault in an off-duty incident last month at a bar in Andover.
Clifford, 47, was making his first court appearance since the charge was upgraded Tuesday from third-degree to first-degree assault in the confrontation that left Brian Vander Lee of Ramsey severely injured.
About half the crowd, many of them police officers, couldn't fit into the small Anoka County courtroom. At the short hearing, the prosecution submitted motions to Judge Lawrence Johnson seeking access to Clifford's personnel file and a gag order to prevent all parties from discussing the case in public.
Clifford, family members and his attorney, Fred Bruno, left the courthouse without commenting.
A surveillance video from the June 16 incident showed Vander Lee, 43, sitting at a patio table at Tanner's Station when Clifford, seated at the next table, approached him.
According to court documents, Clifford said Vander Lee was using offensive language. After a verbal confrontation, Clifford struck Vander Lee in the mouth with his right fist. Vander Lee fell backward, hitting his head on the pavement. Clifford fled on foot.
Bruno said the video shows Vander Lee moved his left arm before the punch. Bruno said he is convinced Vander Lee took the first swing.
Prosecutors said charges against Clifford were upgraded because Vander Lee would have died without medical intervention. He had two brain surgeries and another operation after an incision erupted.
Minneapolis police Sgt. Jeff Jindra, one of those at the courthouse Thursday, said Clifford "is one of the finest cops I know.
"He's one of the best I've ever seen in pressure situations," Jindra said. "He was a source of strength to me during one of my cases."
Mike Vander Lee, who was with his brother Brian at Tanner's Station but had gone to the restroom moments before the incident, did not attend Thursday's hearing. He said he was pleased to hear about the possibility of a gag order.
"My brother has never been in a fight in his life," he said. "I would love to know what Clifford said to him that got Brian to stand up."
The next court hearing is set for Aug. 23.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465