Officer Down

Seven years ago Tony DiIoia was a bright-eyed Minneapolis rookie. Then came the beatings, the lawsuits, and the pink slip.

Following a night in lockup, Buelow was released, and he immediately filed a written complaint with the sheriff's department. He also sought medical attention for his injuries, which he says included postconcussive syndrome, partial hearing loss and "general soreness."

In the end, the Washington County Attorney's Office declined to press charges against Buelow. But that, he says, wasn't satisfactory--especially given that he was personally acquainted with Sheriff Frank. "I guess I expected a call from the sheriff's department saying: 'We made a mistake, can we make it right for you?' But it didn't happen. They still haven't returned my clothes from the jail." After hearing stories about other people who'd had run-ins with DiIoia, Buelow decided to see a lawyer. His lawsuit, filed in September, requests damages "exceeding one million dollars." The case is still in the prediscovery stage and no trial date has been set.

 

Bennett says a few key factors helped clinch his decision to take the case. There were witnesses who supported Buelow's version of events, including Janie and a neighbor who happened to be driving by. None of the principals had been drinking or using drugs. And Buelow, who has kept a careful journal for most of his adult life, had promptly recorded a detailed account of the incident--providing what lawyers term "contemporaneously recorded recollection."

Like most who have reviewed DiIoia's report on the incident, Bennett was also struck by how forthcoming the deputy had been about the beating. Over the years, the attorney has routinely called upon experts specializing in assessing use of force by police to bolster his legal arguments. When he ran the details of the Buelow case by one of them, he says, the expert exclaimed: "'Bob, are you kidding me? He said 35?' He'd never heard of a cop admitting to that many blows."

But most revealing, Bennett concludes, was his review of DiIoia's record. In addition to his history in Minneapolis, DiIoia had been the object of eight internal investigations by the Washington County Sheriff's Office of Standards and Conduct. Sergeant Larry Simon, who heads the office, says that is more than any of the department's 80 sworn deputies has received in the three years he's held the position. During that time, Simon notes, he investigated 156 complaints against deputies, meaning that DiIoia accounted for almost five percent of his workload.

DiIoia was exonerated in four of the cases, and no probable cause was found in a fifth. Two others, however, resulted in sanctions against DiIoia: In one case, stemming from a July 1998 incident, he was reprimanded for failing to report the use of Mace and physical force on two men he encountered while following up on a juvenile citation.

Six months later DiIoia was chastised for his conduct during an investigation of "a possible fight call" in Forest Lake Township. According to the letter of reprimand, he conducted an unauthorized search of a purse and a school bag at the scene. The notice faulted him for behavior that "resulted in an escalation of the event that should have been handled in a more courteous manner," and warned that any similar conduct in the future could get him fired.

Only months later the office found itself investigating the last complaint against DiIoia--Buelow's. On June 25, Simon issued a finding of excessive force against the deputy. The sheriff, who had placed DiIoia on leave a few days after the incident, now decided to hand him his walking papers. "It was a fireable offense because of the amount of force used," Frank says. "That stands on its own."

DiIoia, however, offers a different theory. The Buelow case, he claims, was just the sheriff's excuse to get rid of him--the culmination of a plan hatched as soon as the sheriff discovered his secret. "Everything was fine until the sheriff found out about my depression," DiIoia says. "Then everything went to hell."

According to DiIoia, in the wake of the Afton beating the MPD, which had been paying for psychiatric care under his workers' comp claim, contacted Washington County to determine whether it ought to pay a share of his future treatment. The sheriff immediately demanded that he be evaluated by a psychiatrist to determine whether he was fit for duty.

At first, DiIoia says, he was offended. In three job reviews, his supervisors had rated him average and above average, praising his "relaxed disposition" and "good knowledge of the law." When he complained that the sheriff's demands amounted to discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he charges, Frank blew up.

"He said: 'I don't give a fuck about your union, I don't give a fuck about the ADA.' And he said, 'I want you to go to the hospital and get evaluated or I'm putting you on a 72-hour hold." DiIoia says he phoned up his union rep, and Frank backed down. The deputy also made appointments with two psychiatrists, his own and one assigned by the county; after a ten-day leave, he was cleared to return to work.

But he maintains he soon found himself ostracized. He was turned down for one assignment after the other--drug-dog work, a DARE program, even his old gig on the water patrol. And, he claims, the sheriff and other supervisors were quick to latch on to any excuse to depict him as unstable--including an incident in May 1998, when he began crying in the office. His maternal grandmother, to whom he was close, had just died. "They just keep saying, 'Tony broke down,'" he says. "If that's a sign of someone being wacko, I'm crazy."

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