St. Paul mayor equates jailer's force on restrained inmate to torture
ST. PAUL — What happened in the Ramsey County jail to a restrained inmate amounts to torture, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said Tuesday, Feb. 26.
Other elected officials and community leaders decried a 2016 video made public Monday, which shows a correctional officer punching and using other force on the inmate while employees stand by.
Ramsey County Board Chairman Jim McDonough called “the racial dynamics” alarming of “a white officer acting upon a black male with a group of predominantly white officers present.”
And Tyrone Terrill, African American Leadership Council president, said the treatment of Terrell Johnson was a tragedy, “but we’re also committed to making sure that it never happens again.”
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who wasn’t in office at the time of the incident, joined Terrill at a news conference Tuesday to say they are ushering in changes. The sheriff’s office instituted a new policy on Monday that requires a “duty to intervene” anytime a staff member observes excessive use of force.
Fletcher said he will start a civilian ombudsman program in the jail and see that internal affairs investigations are more timely.
It’s been the norm in Minnesota for law enforcement agencies to have criminal proceedings against an officer conclude before carrying out internal investigations, which was the case for correctional officer Travis VanDeWiele.
He was on administrative leave for two years and paid $121,555 during that time.
Neither VanDeWiele nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
The April 13, 2016, incident was captured on video by a sergeant who was recording — they’ve been video taping at the Ramsey County jail for years to ensure only the necessary amount of force is used when responding to an uncooperative detainee, Fletcher said.
He said the video was not only troubling because of VanDeWiele’s actions.
“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 ... intervene in that cycle,” Fletcher said.
St. Paul police officers, however, “were concerned with what they witnessed” and they notified a police department supervisor, who alerted sheriff’s office leadership, according to a St. Paul police spokesman.
Jail staff indicated in written statements that they were “uncomfortable … but they thought it was the sergeant’s job or someone else’s job to intervene,” Fletcher said, adding that “the primary duty to intervene rested with the sergeant and that sergeant failed miserably.”
The sergeant left the sheriff’s office in March 2017, a month after VanDeWiele was charged. He was not disciplined and Fletcher said he didn’t know if there was a pending internal affairs case when he departed.
Public eyes in the jail
The sheriff asked correctional officer Joe McKinney — who was has deep roots in St. Paul — to lead the new civilian ombudsman program.
The program will put “trained, qualified civilians” in the jail’s booking area “working hand-in-hand with our staff … to have the public’s eyes on” the booking process, Fletcher said.
Fletcher said McKinney will also help with selecting staff who have “exceptional communication and de-escalation skills” to work in the booking area — a place that McKinney described as being “very hostile, very volatile.”
Sheriff: Wrong technique
Prosecutors charged VanDeWiele in February 2017 after the April 2016 case at the jail, where Johnson was brought after his arrest for theft.
After VanDeWiele pushed on 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.
Four sheriff’s employees, including VanDeWiele, surrounded Johnson to try to secure him to a transport chair. Fletcher said Tuesday that the transport chair is not designed for people who are resisting.
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.
Pain compliance techniques, designed to get people to stand up or move, were “counterproductive” in this case, Fletcher said.
Fletcher said Johnson deserves an apology and, he added, “at some point, I will personally deliver that to him.”
A criminal investigation into VanDeWiele, 46, was launched at the end of April 2016. He pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge in January 2018. An assault charge was dropped.
After the court case concluded, the sheriff’s office conducted an internal affairs investigation. They were moving to terminate VanDeWiele, who remained on paid leave. A jail employee since 2014, he began an appeal process in October but submitted his resignation last week.
He also resigned Tuesday as co-head coach of wrestling at East Ridge High School in Woodbury. He was a coach at the school since November 2015 and was paid $5,453 for this season.