Nearly three years after a Ramsey County corrections officer punched and kneed a handcuffed suspect, that staffer is without a job and county officials are vowing to ensure it never happens again.
“The conduct of the corrections officer inflicting significant force on an already restrained individual was extremely disturbing, even more so when other officers were observing and participating in the restraint of the individual,” County Board Chairman Jim McDonough said Tuesday after seeing video of the incident for the first time.
The corrections officer involved, Travis VanDeWiele, pleaded guilty last month to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and has resigned his job.
Sheriff Bob Fletcher released the video of the incident, which occurred before he took office this year, and assured the public Tuesday that changes are already underway.
Fletcher announced a slew of policy and staffing changes at the jail as part of his call for a culture shift in the Sheriff’s Office. Those changes include a new civilian ombudsman program and complaint system, de-escalation and cultural competence training and an upgrade in video equipment used in the booking area.
Employees also will be required to intervene any time they see excessive use of force, he said. The conduct on the video, he said, “will not be tolerated under my watch.”
“It really is disgusting that one human being can treat another human being the way that Mr. Johnson was treated,” Fletcher said, referring to Terrell James Johnson, the inmate. “Equally disturbing is the fact that no one else in that video, whether it was the six correctional officers or the two police officers, were willing to step forward and put a hand on Mr. VanDeWiele and say, ‘Hold on, I got it from here.’ ”
The incident is steeped in racial overtones — Johnson is black and VanDeWiele is white — and has ignited tensions between law enforcement and the local black community. Local leaders were blunt in their assessment of the encounter between Johnson and the officers.
“Race definitely played a role. We’re very lucky that Mr. Johnson wasn’t killed,” said Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council. He added that Johnson’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe reminded him of the police killing of Eric Garner in New York in 2014.
County commissioners spent the first 20 minutes of their regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday discussing the incident and its impact on the community, especially people of color.
“I watched the entire video and was absolutely appalled,” said Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt. “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.
“We have a justice system overall which is highly racialized,” Commissioner Toni Carter said later. “Whether an individual is racist or not, the system over its history had within it embedded practices of racism.” And Ramsey County has not been immune, she added.
In the April 13, 2016, video, 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 jail.
Johnson, who according to the charges against VanDeWiele had been sprayed with a chemical agent, is handcuffed with his pants around his ankles and appears to be unable or unwilling to move. After he falls to the ground limp and a spit mask is placed on his face, he is lifted into a wheelchair-like “transport chair.”
VanDeWiele, his hand apparently squeezing Johnson’s jaw in a “pain compliance” move as described in charges, repeatedly orders him to sit back as Johnson’s hips remain raised. He then knees Johnson twice in the stomach, causing Johnson to protest and call the officers “[expletive] pigs.”
“That’s not very nice, sir,” an officer says.
“I’m always nice,” Johnson responds. “You [expletives] is using excessive force!”
“You ain’t seen excessive force yet,” VanDeWiele responds, before punching Johnson four times in the torso.
VanDeWiele then places his hands on and near Johnson’s neck as Johnson cries, “Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me, I’m sorry.”
“If you stop fighting, we’ll stop using force against you,” one of the officers says before they push Johnson’s head down while he sobs and wheezes, apparently struggling to breathe.
After a couple more minutes, Johnson is secured in the chair and wheeled into the jail. Blood and mucus can be seen on the white spit mask.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, VanDeWiele, 46, was hired in 2014. He was placed on administrative leave three days after the incident and returned to work 10 days later.
The Washington County Attorney’s Office, which investigated the case, declined to charge him with a felony and turned the case over to the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office, which in April 2017 charged him with two counts of fifth-degree assault.
After pleading guilty to disorderly conduct last month, VanDeWiele received three months’ probation and resigned.
County commissioners agreed that the racial connotations of the incident were disturbing. Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, visibly in tears at the meeting, suggested that Fletcher create “a fair and impartial civilian oversight board.”
“This incident demonstrates we have a long way to go and a lot of work to do,” she said.