Saturday, April 13, 2013

Maybe He Was Just Horsing Around

Both local newspapers fell for the photo opp offered by the Saint Paul police department on Friday: Six officers were graduating, with their horses, to become the city's new mounted patrol unit. What could be better than a shot of our four-footed friends being put through their paces by uniformed officers?

The Pioneer Press went with color, while the Star Tribune settled for black and white. And the PiPress wins the contest on writing a more appropriate headline.

This combination of headline and photo makes sense -- descriptive of what their jobs will be, action-oriented, with some nice pops of color.

The Strib, on the other hand, went with the odd headline "Time for horseplay" juxtaposed with a photo of a cop macing a person standing on the street. That's my idea of horseplay, all right (even if it's fake mace in the exercise).

One further bit of juxtaposition: both papers located the horse photos next to their coverage of the trial of an off-duty SWAT cop who slugged a guy in a bar, causing permanent brain injury. Sargent David Clifford is awaiting a jury verdict on felony assault charges and faces up to seven years in jail for hitting a drunk guy and then fleeing the scene.

The crux of the case appears to rest on whether the victim was preparing to hit Clifford or not, and therefore whether Clifford was acting in self-defense. No witnesses present thought the victim was going to throw a punch, and Clifford never claimed that in his initial statements to police. But once defense lawyer Fred Bruno got involved, Clifford's story "evolved."

As with other cases of "standing your ground," there's only one solution once an altercation gets going: violence. As the Strib's story put it,

[Prosecutor] Buccicone asked why Clifford didn't just walk away in the first place, instead of throwing a punch.

"He's not trained to do that," the prosecutor said. "He's trained to win."
(The Strib story as it ran this morning is no longer on their website; here's the updated version.)

The PiPress quoted Clifford's lawyer as basically agreeing with that characterization:
"This is a guy so highly trained it's difficult for the rest of us to understand how sharp his perceptions are," Fred Bruno, Clifford's defense attorney, said of his client.

The moment before, Clifford was just a guy out for a casual drink at a bar with his wife and neighbors... "But the moment Brian Vander Lee went to punch  him with his left hook, he became Sgt. David Clifford, executive officer of the Minneapolis SWAT team...a person whose training could do nothing but kick in at the moment of this attack..."
Too bad none of the mere mortals who were present perceived an attack and Clifford didn't remember the "left hook" when he first talked to investigators. If Clifford was being bothered by the loud behavior of Vander Lee, all he had to do, as the prosecutor pointed out, was ask to be moved to another table or complain to the restaurant staff. But instead he accosted Vander Lee and set up a situation that spiraled out of control.

Is this how cops are taught to deal with the public? If you ask me, a trained peace officer should be less likely to slug a drunk guy than an average bar patron, not more likely to.

But when we have images of cops on horseback macing a bystander, accompanied by headlines like "Time for Horseplay," maybe it's understandable that the cops think they can get away with it.


Update: As I finished writing, the jury returned a verdict: Clifford was found guilty on three charges of 1st, 3rd and 5th degree assault. According to the PiPress, "The presumptive sentence for a person convicted of first-degree assault with no criminal history is between 81 and 91 months in prison, according to Assistant Anoka County Attorney Paul Young. He added that departures from sentencing guidelines are not uncommon."

1 comment:

Ms Sparrow said...

Yes, at the very least, Clifford used excessive force and he had been drinking.