The Yo-Yo Files

Why did it take three investigations, two trials, and one year of legal ups and downs to convict Alfred Flowers of sassing a cop? He may never know: Minneapolis, Hennepin County, and the FBI have declared the records top-secret.

Tarvanisha Boyd wanted a yo-yo. There had been a sale on them at her school, but the vendor wouldn't accept the check she'd brought from home. Her birthday money was burning a hole in her pocket, and she knew there were yo-yos at the Walgreens on Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis, not far from her house. She and her sister and brother set off to check out the selection.

Officer Timothy Savior first spotted Tarvanisha in the toy aisle. He was working off-duty security at the store that day, he would later testify in court, and he had noticed some empty packages on the floor. He glimpsed the girl fingering a yo-yo; later he saw her again without the toy. He stopped her to ask what she'd done with it. She said she'd put it back on the shelf because she didn't have enough money. He asked whether she had a knife--the packages he'd seen were tough plastic--and she said no. He patted down her pockets, found nothing, and sent her home. Don't come back without your parents, he said.

Alfred Flowers, Tarvanisha's father, realized that something was wrong when his ten-year-old burst through the front door, crying about being "in trouble with the police." Flowers says he didn't think, right then, about the string of disputes his family had had with the Minneapolis Police Department stretching back some 20 years. Not about the brutality complaint filed on his behalf way back in 1981, and not about his sister, MPD Sgt. Alisa Clemons, who was in the process of suing the city alleging that she had been the victim of discrimination, reprisals, even a death threat.

All he was worried about on the afternoon of March 3, 1999, Flowers says, was Tarvanisha's pride. She admired her police-officer aunt, and she'd talked about joining the force herself when she grew up. He told her they'd go back to the store and set things right.

Alfred Flowers is tall and thin, all bony angles with hooded eyes and a sleepy voice. Until that afternoon he had no criminal record, just a handful of traffic tickets.

Savior is short and broad-chested. He readily admits that he worries about lawsuits stemming from his police work. At the time of the encounter with Flowers, he was a defendant in a federal lawsuit over property confiscated from a drug dealer. Twelve years earlier he'd been in court defending himself against an assault charge stemming from an incident outside a South Side bar (he was acquitted).

No one except those who were present may ever know for sure what happened after Flowers and his daughter returned to the Walgreens that afternoon. Most of the files on the case--and on the fistful of government investigations it sparked--have been declared confidential. Witnesses offered varying accounts of the incident. Tapes from the store's security system show nothing but a few frames' worth of Savior's stumbling legs.

What is clear is that within minutes of the time Flowers walked in he was on the ground, handcuffed and bruised; the store was swarming with cops; and Tarvanisha, in the words of the report Savior filed on the incident, "appeared to be in shock and was screaming, crying and shaking." Flowers was taken to jail and booked for disorderly conduct and assault; the girl went home with her mother.

And that's where things could have ended--with an arrest, a police report, perhaps a brief court appearance. The kind of judicial routine that dispenses with tens of thousands of minor criminal cases filed locally every year. In 1998 more than 65,000 misdemeanors were processed in Hennepin County District Court. Just 64--less than a tenth of one percent--actually went to trial.

Flowers, however, went through not just one of those very few trials, but two. He waited more than seven months for his first day in court, only to have the proceedings end in a mistrial. His second trial was similarly plagued by postponements. His case also set off an internal police investigation, an FBI inquiry, and a trail of red tape that eventually wound its way through five government offices. It was, in a nutshell, perhaps the most complex case never to make headlines in city history.

 

Law-enforcement experts have a term for criminal cases in which the only offense is the defendant's conduct toward a police officer. The perp, they joke, must have been guilty of "contempt of cop." Sometimes those cases turn into newspaper headlines. But according to local attorneys who have handled civil-rights suits against police officers, most never result in anything more than a bitter memory for everyone involved.

Minneapolis defense attorney Frederick Goetz says he gets about five calls a week from people looking to sue cops who may have stepped over the line, but he takes up only two or three such cases each year. If there are no broken bones, he explains, there's not a lot he can do. The cost of independently investigating such a case is prohibitive, and the city usually spares no expense defending its officers.

Alfred Flowers didn't sue anyone. Instead he took his complaint about what had happened at Walgreens to both of the agencies in charge of protecting citizens from police misconduct. Within hours of his arrest, his wife Patunya Cofield went to the local offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to file a civil-rights complaint against Savior. Later Flowers himself did the same at the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority. Unbeknownst to Flowers, the Minneapolis Police Department's Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) also began probing the incident; according to police administrators, the unit automatically opens an investigation whenever the FBI looks into an incident involving the department.

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