Taken for a Ride

St. Paul police officers roughed up a quadriplegic man who couldn't obey orders to put his hands in the air. Chief William Finney upheld the man's complaint, but didn't discipline the cops.

WHEN A ST. Paul cop pointed a gun at James Brendale's head and told him to put up his hands or he'd shoot, Brendale thought he was a goner. He hasn't been able to raise his hands in the air since his spine was crushed in a car accident 11 years ago. He tried to explain this to the police, but they yanked him out of the car and threw him to the ground. What followed earned Brendale the largest city settlement in the history of St. Paul. The cops who beat him, however, got off with a slap on the wrist.

Although the St. Paul Police Department has not yet earned the ignominy of the cops in its sister city, civil-rights attorney Bob Bennett contends that it's well on its way. In the assault complaint he filed on behalf of Brendale, Bennett claims that the department has a "custom and practice of deliberated indifference of the city to citizens' complaints of excessive force." In addition, says Bennett, in the rare event a complaint is sustained, the department consistently fails to discipline its officers in a manner commensurate to their actions.

Brendale's only mistake, says Bennett, was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. On June 12, 1995, an old acquaintance of Brendale's offered to take him for a ride. Anthony Michalek carried Brendale to the car, strapped him in, and took off for a local scrap yard. There, Michalek got into an argument with an employee who claimed Michalek's scrap ticket was stolen. The cops were called, Michalek fled, and a high-speed chase ensued.

"He [Michalek] hits something like nine cars and runs into a bunch of other stuff," recounts Bennett. "He was rather intoxicated." During the chase, Bennett contends, the police dispatcher informed the cops that the passenger was disabled. But when the pursuit came to a crashing halt, officers David Sohm and Xiong Yang failed to heed the warning. "Sohm orders Brendale out at gunpoint and tells him to put his hands up," explains the attorney, adding that Brendale can do so only with the aid of a physical therapist. "This," he motions, hands overhead, "isn't going to happen. And Brendale's afraid he's going to get killed because 'I can't' isn't what cops like to hear."

Next, Bennett says, Sohm dragged Brendale out to the car, and ordered him to stand up. "He can't do this, but they keep standing him up and he keeps falling down. He's 6 feet 1 inch tall, weights 118 pounds, has a Foley catheter and a bag for urine," Bennett explains, adding that at one point, Brendale's pants fell down. "His legs have no muscle mass. He looks like he's from Auschwitz or something." Despite the man's fragile appearance, Sohm and Yang kicked and stomped on his back and legs, the lawyer says. Eventually, Sohm picked the quadriplegic up by the handcuffs, dragged him to the squad car, and threw him in the backseat, face down.

Finally, a Ramsey County paramedic walked past and noticed Brendale struggling for air. "According to the Internal Affairs report," says Bennett, "Sohm says this is when he first 'discovers' that Brendale is disabled, and first notices 'some sort of colostomy bag attached to him.'" Sohm accompanied Brendale to the hospital, where emergency-room personnel say Sohm tried to convince them that Brendale's injuries were the result of the car crash. "The emergency-room doctor stated that there's no way [Brendale] could sustain these injuries from a car accident," Bennett says. "Somebody thumped him."

Brendale's complaint against Yang and Sohm was sustained by both Internal Affairs and by Chief William "Corky" Finney, but Bennett contends the only discipline the officers received was a letter in their personnel files. "Take this experience, turn it around, and use it to develop the officers of the future," Bennett says Finney's letter to Sohm read. While he contends that Brendale's case was winnable, Bennett recently signed settlement papers netting Brendale $225,000. Brendale's health is poor, and the settlement is three times the previous top award, Bennett says.

A St. Paul Police representative says department policy prohibits comment on personnel matters, but confirmed that Sohm's reassignment to a desk job has nothing to do with the incident. St. Paul City Council member Jerry Blakey concedes that Sohm "overreacted," and says the officer "has been ordered to attend some kind of sensitivity training." "Overall, he's a good officer," says Blakey, adding that perhaps "we'd better work with [him] about how to deal with stress."

 
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