Police in Ferguson, Missouri, once charged a man with destruction of property for bleeding on their uniforms while four of them allegedly beat him.
“On and/or about the 20th day of Sept. 20, 2009 at or near 222 S. Florissant within the corporate limits of Ferguson, Missouri, the above named defendant did then and there unlawfully commit the offense of ‘property damage’ to wit did transfer blood to the uniform,” reads the charge sheet.
The address is the headquarters of the Ferguson Police Department, where a 52-year-old welder named Henry Davis was taken in the predawn hours on that date. He had been arrested for an outstanding warrant that proved to actually be for another man of the same surname, but a different middle name and Social Security number.
“I said, ‘I told you guys it wasn’t me,’” Davis later testified.
He recalled the booking officer saying, “We have a problem.”
The booking officer had no other reason to hold Davis, who ended up in Ferguson only because he missed the exit for St. Charles and then pulled off the highway because the rain was so heavy he could not see to drive. The cop who had pulled up behind him must have run his license plate and assumed he was that other Henry Davis. Davis said the cop approached his vehicle, grabbed his cellphone from his hand, cuffed him and placed him in the back seat of the patrol car, without a word of explanation.
But the booking officer was not ready just to let Davis go, and proceeded to escort him to a one-man cell that already had a man in it asleep on the lone bunk. Davis says that he asked the officer if he could at least have one of the sleeping mats that were stacked nearby.
”He said I wasn’t getting one,” Davis said.
Davis balked at being a second man in a one-man cell.
“Because it’s 3 in the morning,” he later testified. “Who going to sleep on a cement floor?”
The booking officer summoned a number of fellow cops. One opened the cell door while another suddenly charged, propelling Davis inside and slamming him against the back wall.
“I told the police officers there that I didn’t do nothing, ‘Why is you guys doing this to me?’” Davis testified. “They said, ‘OK, just lay on the ground and put your hands behind your back.’”
Davis said he complied and that a female officer straddled and then handcuffed him. Two other officers crowded into the cell.
“They started hitting me,” he testified. “I was getting hit and I just covered up.”
The other two stepped out and the female officer allegedly lifted Davis’ head as the cop who had initially pushed him into the cell reappeared.
“He ran in and kicked me in the head,” Davis recalled. “I almost passed out at that point… Paramedics came… They said it was too much blood, I had to go to the hospital.”
A patrol car took the bleeding Davis to a nearby emergency room. He refused treatment, demanding somebody first take his picture.
“I wanted a witness and proof of what they done to me,” Davis said.
He was driven back to the jail, where he was held for several days before he posted $1,500 bond on four counts of “property damage.” Police Officer John Beaird had signed complaints swearing on pain of perjury that Davis had bled on his uniform and those of three fellow officers.
The remarkable turned inexplicable when Beaird was deposed in a civil case that Davis subsequently brought seeking redress and recompense.
“After Mr. Davis was detained, did you have any blood on you?” asked Davis’ lawyer, James Schottel.
“No, sir,” Beaird replied.
Schottel showed Beaird a copy of the “property damage” complaint.
“Is that your signature as complainant?” the lawyer asked.
“It is, sir,” the cop said.
“And what do you allege that Mr. Davis did unlawfully in this one?” the lawyer asked.
“Transferred blood to my uniform while Davis was resisting,” the cop said.
“And didn’t I ask you earlier in this deposition if Mr. Davis got blood on your uniform?”
“You did, sir.”
“And didn’t you respond no?”
“Correct. I did.”
Beaird seemed to be either admitting perjury or committing it. The depositions of other officers suggested that the “property damage” charges were not just bizarre, but trumped up.
“There was no blood on my uniform,” said Police Officer Christopher Pillarick.
And then there was Officer Michael White, the one accused of kicking Davis in the head, an allegation he denies, as his fellow officers deny striking Davis. White had reported suffering a bloody nose in the mayhem.
“Did you see Mr. Davis bleeding at all?” the lawyer, Schottel, asked.
“I did not,” White replied.
“Did Mr. Davis get any blood on you while you were in the cell?” Schottel asked.
“No,” White said.
The contradictions between the complaint and the depositions apparently are what prompted the prosecutor to drop the “property damage” allegation. The prosecutor also dropped a felony charge of assault on an officer that had been lodged more than a year after the incident and shortly after Davis filed his civil suit.
Davis suggested in his testimony that if the police really thought he had assaulted an officer he would have been charged back when he was jailed.
“They would have filed those charges right then and there, because that’s a major felony,” he noted.
Indisputable evidence of what transpired in the cell might have been provided by a surveillance camera, but it turned out that the VHS video was recorded at 32 times normal speed.
“It was like a blur,” Schottel told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “You couldn’t see anything.”
The blur proved to be from 12 hours after the incident anyway. The cops had saved the wrong footage after Schottel asked them to preserve it.
Schottel got another unpleasant surprise when he sought the use-of-force history of the officers involved. He learned that before a new chief took over in 2010 the department had a surprising protocol for non-fatal use-of-force reports.
“The officer himself could complete it and give it to the supervisor for his approval,” the prior chief, Thomas Moonier, testified in a deposition. “I would read it. It would be placed in my out basket, and my secretary would probably take it and put it with the case file.”
No copy was made for the officer’s personnel file.
“Everything involved in an incident would generally be with the police report,” Moonier said. “I don’t know what they maintain in personnel files.”
“Who was in charge of personnel files, of maintaining them?” Schottel asked.
“I have no idea,” Moonier said. “I believe City Hall, but I don’t know.”
Schottel focused on the date of the incident.
“On September 20th, 2009, was there any way to identify any officers that were subject of one or more citizens’ complaints?” he asked.
“Not to my knowledge,” Moonier said.
“Was there any way to identify any officers who had completed several use-of-force reports?”
“I don’t recall.”
But however lax the department’s system and however contradictory the officers’ testimony, a federal magistrate ruled that the apparent perjury about the “property damage” charges was too minor to constitute a violation of due process and that Davis’ injuries were de minimis—too minor to warrant a finding of excessive force. Never mind that a CAT scan taken after the incident confirmed that he had suffered a concussion.
Schottel has appealed and expects to argue the case in December. He will contend that perjury is perjury however minor the charge and note that both the NFL and Major League Baseball have learned to consider a concussion a serious injury.
Schottel figures the courts might take the problems of the Ferguson Police Department as more than de minimis as a result of the protests sparked when an officer shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old named Michael Brown on the afternoon of Aug. 9.
“Your chances on appeal are going up,” a fellow lawyer told him.
At least one witness has said that Brown was shot in the back and then in the chest and head as he turned toward the officer with his hands raised.
“I said, ‘Well, that doesn’t surprise me,’” Schottel told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “I said I already know about Ferguson, nothing new can faze me about Ferguson.”
Schottel has also deposed the new chief, Thomas Jackson, who took over in 2010. Jackson testified that he has instituted a centralized system whereby all complaints lodged against cops by citizens or supervisors go through him and are assigned a number in an internal affairs log. Schottel views Jackson as “not a bad guy,” someone who has been trying to make positive change.
“He wants to do right, but it was such a mess,” Schottel said Wednesday.
Jackson has seemed less than progressive as he delayed identifying the officer involved in the shooting for fear it would place him and his family in danger. Jackson would only say the officer is white and has been on the job for six years. This means that for his first two and most formative years the officer might have been writing his own force reports and that none of them went into his file.
“It’s hard to get people to clean things up, especially if they’re used to doing things a certain way,” Schottel said.
On Friday, police finally identified the officer as Darren Wilson, who is said to have no disciplinary record, as such records are kept in Ferguson. We already know that he started out at a time when it was accepted for a Ferguson cop to charge somebody with property damage for bleeding on his uniform and later saying there was no blood on him at all.