Behind Closed Doors
By G.R. Anderson Jr. and Mike Mosedale
I. The Puzzle Palace
The Stephen Porter case is a prism. Tilt it one way, you can see the refracted image of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant whose name became national shorthand for police brutality when a New York City cop rammed a broom handle up his anus in a Brooklyn station house in 1997.
Tilt it another way, and you will be reminded of a very different, equally infamous East Coast "police brutality" case from 10 years earlier--that of Tawana Brawley. Brawley inflamed racial tensions with an appalling tale of rape and humiliation at the hands of redneck cops in upstate New York. There was one problem with Brawley's story: It was all a lie, the pure fabrication of a frightened 15-year-old who didn't want to get in trouble for an unexcused absence from home.
As rumors, speculation, and facts have accrued in the blizzard of media coverage of the Porter case, almost everyone peered into the prism. Police brutality activists and other community leaders tilted it until they saw a Minneapolis Louima. The allegation certainly bore more than a passing resemblance. According to Porter, two veteran Minneapolis police officers, Jeffrey Jindra and Todd Babekuhl, sodomized him with a toilet plunger during a drug raid at a north Minneapolis duplex on a Monday afternoon. Although there were no eyewitnesses, people in the duplex said they heard Porter's cries of pain.
Charges of police brutality are hardly unusual in Minneapolis. But Police Chief Robert Olson's rapid and shaken response was unprecedented, and it fed speculation that the cops had really screwed up this time. At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Olson announced that the FBI had been called in to investigate the charges. The MPD's critics have long been accustomed to having their concerns dismissed or ignored; the chief's quick willingness to summon the feds gave credence to Porter's story.
But Olson could have had other motivations. Whether or not he believed Porter's claims, he no doubt recognized that word of such a vile attack could inflame the public to the point of violence. Last summer, after an 11-year-old boy was injured in a police shooting, riots broke out in the streets of the Jordan neighborhood. Why risk any such conflagration at a time when Olson, whose MPD contract expires at the end of the year, is in the market for a new job? In the short run, an FBI investigation might placate an angry public, even if at the same time it emboldened critics. And whatever the disposition, Olson would be gone by the time it came down. Much better to play it by the book.
Tilt the prism again, though, and Porter's allegations start to look more like Tawana Brawley's than Abner Loiuma's. First, a number of reporters and onlookers have remarked upon the difference between Porter's seemingly able-bodied gait as he left the jail and his hunched, limping appearance at a press conference later that day. There are also some striking coincidences of time. Shortly before Porter was arrested, an inmate at the Hennepin County Jail, Philander Jenkins, made headlines with an allegation that two deputy sheriffs had shoved a foreign object in his anus. Just three nights before the raid, an Abner Louima-inspired episode of the television show Law and Order: SVU aired on national TV. Of course, we don't know whether Porter watches SVU, or whether he reads the paper or knew anything about Abner Louima.
We don't know that--or a great deal else--because Porter isn't answering questions. In a hastily called press conference Wednesday, choreographed by the north side activist Spike Moss, Porter did offer explicit details of the alleged assault. But he refused to take questions from reporters. And when a limping Porter collapsed on the ground following the press conference, many reacted skeptically: He had shown no outward evidence of injury when he was videotaped walking briskly away from the jail a few hours earlier.
Meanwhile, the evidence that would most bolster Porter's claim has not been forthcoming: the medical report describing his injuries. Keith Ellison, an attorney who has represented Porter in the past and is now advising him, insists that Porter did suffer serious internal injuries and that there is a medical report to confirm as much. But, citing privacy concerns, Ellison has refused to make the report public.
Which begs an obvious and critical question: If Porter is willing to discuss publicly the details of such an appalling physical violation, what additional harm--or diminution of privacy--could arise from disclosing a medical report to that effect? The most obvious, and widespread, conjecture is that the documents simply do little to support Porter's claims.
II. The Incident
According to MPD records, police came to 2519 Third Street North, an up-down rental duplex abutting the western edge of I-94, at 8:34 a.m. October 13, on a domestic dispute call. No citations were served, and no one was arrested.
Police records also show that Officer Mark Beaupre had obtained a search warrant for the premises sometime in the preceding 72 hours. According to Beaupre's notes in the warrant, he had brought an unidentified informant to the house to meet "Big Steve." Big Steve welcomed the informant into the upstairs unit of the duplex and sold him a rock of crack cocaine.
Porter did not list the house--which has seen 27 police calls in the last year and a half--as his place of residence, but he was familiar to many in the neighborhood.
Later that Monday, sometime around 2:00 p.m., Stephen Porter was on the front porch of the duplex smoking a cigarette. When squad cars pulled up, Porter ran inside. Police followed him upstairs, and they told Porter, along with as many as four others, to lie facedown on the floor, where they were handcuffed.
For the next two hours, anywhere from six to ten Minneapolis cops searched the apartment. And during that time, something appeared to go wrong with the bust. Neighbors told Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels that they heard hitting and screaming from inside the house. Witnesses inside the house could not see clearly what was going on, but according to people close to those witnesses, they heard at least two officers seclude Porter in a separate room. One claims to have overheard a cop asking for a plunger. And, later, Porter's screams.
For such a lengthy search, the yield was relatively modest. According to police reports, cops seized two wads of cash totaling $269 and a counterfeit $10 bill. They took a digital scale and returned three cell phones and a pager to the woman who rents the unit. They also found two baggies of pot and one bag of what is presumed to be crack, some of it retrieved from the toilet. Not long after 4:00 p.m., police escorted two men out of the house and took them downtown to the Hennepin County Jail. Officer Jeff Jindra booked Porter; the other man was released.
Jail staffers are required to ask any suspect about injuries during booking, and prisoners hurt during arrest are supposed to be taken to Hennepin County Medical Center immediately. But Porter's alleged injuries were apparently overlooked, either by him or authorities--instead, he was placed in a jail cell.
Soon enough, Porter was asking for the jail supervisor, complaining of injury. There were no readily visible bruises or welts. According to one source who has had a meeting with Porter since the arrest, Porter's claims were not taken seriously until he elaborated: He had been sexually assaulted.
In view of the gravity of the allegation, a Hennepin County Sheriff's Office deputy called MPD Chief Robert Olson shortly after 7:00 p.m. Olson put what he calls "a seasoned vet" on the investigation. The Internal Affairs Unit "worked all night," according to Olson, and "gave me a briefing the next morning." Sources who have met privately with Olson say this happened, over the phone, on Tuesday at 4:30 a.m.
"I understood this to be a serious matter," Olson has said. "I've never in my life heard such awful allegations, such an awful thing. I immediately contacted the FBI."
The feds reacted swiftly. By 8:00 a.m. as many as 10 federal investigators had descended on the house and taken over the investigation from the MPD. Internal Affairs officers returned to the county jail to interview Porter. One key point of the investigation remained unclear as we went to press--whether investigators had located the plunger or similar device allegedly used in the attack.
By Tuesday, rumors of the investigation were spreading quickly through the police station and City Hall. Olson had notified Mayor R.T. Rybak of the situation in the late-morning hours; other city leaders knew nothing until as late as 4:00 p.m., a half-hour before Olson's scheduled press conference. By 5:00 p.m., roughly 24 hours after Porter was booked, the announcement that Olson had called in the FBI to investigate an alleged sexual assault by Minneapolis police was all over early evening newscasts.
III. The Players
What do we know about Stephen Porter and what do we know about the cops involved in the incident?
First the latter. Jeffrey Jindra joined the force in 1996, after serving as a cop in Brooklyn Park for 12 years. During his tenure in Brooklyn Park, Jindra received one reprimand for using excessive force on a prisoner, along with numerous positive citations. The 43-year-old officer was assigned to the Fourth Precinct in May 2001, following stints in the narcotics and organized-crime units. His personnel file shows no reprimands while on the Minneapolis force.
This past June, however, he was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Damani Bediako, the 14-year-old grandson of civil rights activist Matthew Little. The suit alleges that the officer choked, punched, and slapped Bediako without provocation. An FBI investigation cleared Jindra, but a federal lawsuit is still pending. And a source close to that case notes Jindra's unusual career trajectory: "Why leave a relatively cushy post in Brooklyn Park and come to the Fourth Precinct?"
Todd Babekuhl, 41, became a Minneapolis cop in 1989 and has been assigned to the Fourth Precinct for the past five years. His personnel file also reveals no disciplinary history. Mark Beaupre likewise has a clean personnel file, and even won the department's Medal of Valor for Bravery in 1997, after he and others were fired upon in a drug raid. More recently, Beaupre, a 13-year veteran of the force, was one of two officers involved in a shootout during a drug raid on a house in the Longfellow neighborhood that left one man seriously wounded in May 2002. Notably, Jindra's file shows that two years ago, he asked for a transfer to the Fourth Precinct specifically so he would work with Beaupre.
For Porter's part, his rap sheet contains four felony drug convictions in the past six years, but no history of violence or weapons use. In 1997, he was convicted of both second- and fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance, which stemmed from two separate busts. In each case, he was sentenced to a year in the workhouse and three years of probation. Prison terms of 48 months and 17 months were stayed on the condition that Porter stayed clean.
He didn't. In March 1999, he was busted with crack cocaine at a Super 8 Motel in Brooklyn Center. Responding to a stolen-vehicle report, Brooklyn Center cops entered Porter's motel room and discovered 37.5 grams of crack. He pleaded guilty to second-degree possession and received a 74-month prison term. At two press conferences last week, Porter owned up to his troubled background. "My life, I'm not an angel," he said at one point. "I'm through with that life."
In January, Minneapolis police officers stopped a stolen black Cadillac near the intersection of West Broadway Avenue and Penn Avenue North. Porter was arrested and booked into the Hennepin County Jail. During a search, police discovered three or more grams of crack in his rectum. Porter again pleaded guilty, this time to fifth-degree possession, and was expected to receive a prison sentence of 30 months. The sentencing was postponed until 2004--partly because Porter was due to become a father in January.
IV. Police Procedure
That Porter had a history of hiding drugs in his rectum--and, more importantly, that police knew it--adds a measure of credibility to Fourth Precinct Commander Tim Dolan's claim last week that Porter's alleged injury was related to "hiding dope up his butt." On the other hand, does it mean that cops didn't "[take] a toilet plunger and [ram] it all the way up his ass," as one source bluntly explained last week? No. But it does suggest a motive for an invasive search.
Even if the alleged assault did not occur exactly as Porter says, any field cavity search by police beyond peering into mouths with flashlights would likely constitute a significant breach of civil rights. Most metro police departments, and the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department, have policies explicitly prohibiting body cavity searches by officers in the field. The Minneapolis Police Department policy and procedure manual does not address the issue explicitly, but according to MPD Sgt. Ron Bellendier, it is not regarded as permissible. "Most of the time, if you're going to do an invasive search, you would need a warrant and it would be done at a medical facility or by a medical person at the jail," Bellendier says. "Cavity searches don't happen in the field, with the exception of the mouth, where people hide drugs."
Of course, people also hide drugs in other body cavities--a fact well known to cops. After the Porter case hit the headlines, a second man, Daniel Laird, came forward claiming that he had been subjected to an inappropriate search during a routine traffic stop by a Minneapolis police officer in 1999. Laird concedes that police had reason to believe he might be hiding drugs in his rectum; a few days earlier, he says, he had been arrested with a friend and attempted to hide some crack in his buttocks, which was discovered after he was booked in the Hennepin County jail. But, Laird says, he wasn't holding on the night of the traffic stop.
"The cop just jumped out of the car and said, 'Larry, do you have any crack in your ass?' I said, 'I'm not pulling down my pants.' I was handcuffed; they threw me on the grass. One of the cops pulled down my pants and put on a glove and slipped a finger in my ass," Laird recalls. Shortly afterwards, Laird says, he complained to Internal Affairs but says nothing came of his request for an investigation. He was also unable to interest any lawyers in his case.
"I've talked to a lot of people about what I told you, but nobody listened," Laird adds. "That shit is still in my head. Every time I get high I think about that shit. I went and got drunk, and went down to the Fourth Precinct and cussed them out. They didn't even take me to jail. They just threw me out."
V. The "Informant"
The precise nature of Porter's relationship with the MPD also remains an open question. In his first press conference, Porter repeatedly identified one of the officers, Jindra, by name. There was an air of familiarity in Porter's comments, suggesting that the two knew each other. Last week, the Star Tribune reported that "sources" said Porter had worked as a snitch for the cops.
Saying he feared for his life, Porter vehemently denied the claim on Thursday. "All my cases I pleaded guilty," Porter noted at his second press conference in as many days. "In '99 they tried to convince me to snitch, but I wouldn't help the cops. I served my eight months."
Black leaders were uniformly outraged at the snitch story, claiming it had to come directly from the MPD and that it put Porter's life on the line. It is certainly true that police historically have used such allegations to compromise--often fatally--individuals they have targeted. The practice even has a colloquial name: "hanging a snitch jacket" on somebody. There is also circumstantial reason to doubt that Porter was a snitch: He was named as the basis for the drug warrant that police served that day. (As a general rule, police are not in the habit of busting each other's confidential informants; preferential treatment is one of the carrots that keep snitches cooperating with cops.)
Whether or not Porter ever worked with police, it bears noting that to air such an explosive allegation publicly is generally understood to put the alleged snitch's life at risk. Whoever made the claim would seem to have been acting with extreme malice.
VI. The Fall
Who to believe?
Stephen Porter maintains that police detained him in a separate room for a long period of time during the bust at 2519 Third Street. Witness accounts seem to support that, and the timeline of events is consistent with it. (Porter was eventually booked into the Hennepin County Jail at 6:53 p.m.) Earwitnesses from inside and outside the house say they heard blows and/or screams of pain. (Though little is known about the medical report from Porter's subsequent examination, the Star Tribune did report that "sources familiar with the medical report filed by a doctor who examined Porter on Monday night said his injuries were consistent with his report of soreness and tenderness of the rectum," a characterization that is consistent with Porter's story--but also consistent with his past practice of hiding drugs inside his rectal cavity.)
Here are Porter's own words about what occurred, from his Wednesday press conference: "Officer Jindra gestured to Officer [inaudible] to go get something out of the bathroom. So when he returned, he had a plunger... Officer Jindra tried to stick it up my butt four times. I felt it twice go in. I got teared [sic] tissues in my back--my butt."
On its face this sounds quite different from the images conjured by the memory of the Louima case, and one possibility is that Porter is telling the truth about the outlines of the incident, but that the extent and savagery of his injuries have been exaggerated in ensuing days.
Which leads us to the matter of The Fall, Porter's widely questioned collapse at the end of that Wednesday press conference. As seen from behind (a view best captured by Fox 9's footage), it does appear that Porter's herky-jerky tumble may have been deliberate, a view shared by many of those present. Michelle Gross, the head of Communities United Against Police Brutality and a registered nurse, says she thought it looked like a pratfall, too, until she reached Porter's side and found that he had a rapid pulse and seemed "shocky." Still, press footage of Porter on a stretcher shows him neither in apparent pain or shock--he appears to look around alertly, with a neutral expression on his face.
Whether real or contrived, Porter's dramatic fall changed the stakes in the case. Now he must prove that his injuries are equally dramatic, or he will be accused of making the whole thing up--even if his injuries are consistent with a less sensational version of his story.
VII. Winners & Losers
To be fair, it was neither Porter nor his handlers who first suggested that something grave had occurred. It was Chief Robert Olson, whose somber press conference and quick summoning of the FBI led most observers to assume the worst from the start. But consider Olson's situation: He is the chief of a police department with a long history of trouble and controversy, and he is looking for another job. Under the circumstances, openness and rigor were the only smart play: If the charges proved true, the chief would be seen as acting vigorously and responsibly. If the charges proved false, then Olson would have effectively dragooned the federal government into discrediting some of the MPD's most persistent critics. He can't lose.
Timing was everything with regard to Olson's announcement last Tuesday. Activists note that there were several times during Olson's tenure when he might have called on the FBI to investigate police misconduct. That he would do it at the end of his term, and announce it in a way that was sure to generate huge publicity, is notable. The investigation is sure to take three months, and won't wrap until Olson's contract expires on January 1. The city will be left to deal with the aftermath.
However serious Olson believed the situation to be, this also serves as a parting shot in his war with Mayor R.T. Rybak. Ever since Rybak tried and failed to oust Olson in April 2002, the chief has outmaneuvered the mayor on all political fronts. Olson has refused to criticize the mayor in the media, taken great pains to strengthen relationships with leaders from minority communities, and generally appeared to be going about his business of fighting crime.
"You could see it on their faces at the press conference," one insider surmised. "Rybak was standing behind Olson with his head down." And when Rybak spoke, says the source, one could imagine Olson's thoughts. "He looked at him as if to say, 'Take that, you prick. Try to get rid of me? How do you like me now?'"
On Friday night, Olson and Rybak, along with council members Natalie Johnson Lee and Don Samuels, held a community forum at Farview Park, just blocks away from the scene of the Porter arrest. For two hours, the four of them answered hostile questions and absorbed angry accusations from some 300 people, nearly all of them African Americans from the north side. There, Olson had completed a remarkable transformation: After eight years of being criticized for failing to improve relations between cops and minorities, Olson was suddenly being praised for reaching out to the African American community, and demonstrating that he cared about problems plaguing blacks on the city's north side.
Rybak, on the other hand, got bashed from all sides. Just a week earlier, he had refused to meet with the community leaders who came to his office to talk about what they called a "state of emergency" regarding race relations in the city. At the forum, he was repeatedly torched for ignoring the black community. Jerry McAfee launched into a screed against Rybak, and then added insult to injury by walking out en masse with his congregation from nearby New Salem Baptist Church before the mayor could respond. Randy Staten railed that Rybak was the worst mayor in terms of race relations that he had seen in his 39 years of working with city leadership.
However bleak the mayor's position may be, the biggest winners and losers ultimately will be the MPD and its many longtime critics. The Porter case has finally brought to the foreground years of trouble and controversy surrounding the conduct of Minneapolis police. And--fairly or not--its disposition will ring as a verdict in the public mind. If federal investigators conclude that there are grounds for criminal charges against police in the episode, there is a chance that the department could be placed under federal control and reorganized under the auspices of the Justice Department. Already, a federal mediator is working with the MPD and minority communities to change policing practices. And full-blown federal takeovers have occurred in other cities with a long history of police abuses, including Detroit and Cincinnati.
Additional reporting by Paul Demko and Steve Perry.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.