Dog Bites Man

Police dog blues: Ete'u Spencer bares his wounds
Daniel Corrigan

Shortly after noon on March 12th, at least three Minneapolis police officers showed up at an apartment complex on the 1900 block of Park Avenue South to arrest Ete'U Spencer. The 39-year-old father of two was wanted on a felony warrant for failing to register as a sex offender.

When the officers began banging on the front door of his apartment, Spencer jumped out the window and took off. He didn't make it very far.

As soon as Spencer rounded the corner of the apartment building he was ordered to halt by Officer Carl Blad, who was accompanied by his police-issue German shepherd. According to Spencer's account, he immediately complied, throwing his hands in the air and dropping to his knees. "You got me," he recalls saying. "I don't know what for but you got me."

Spencer says he was then ordered to prostrate himself flat on the ground. Before he could comply, however, the dog attacked and began biting him repeatedly on his right arm. "He sent that dog on me after I had already given up," maintains Spencer. Derrick LaJohn Addison, a friend of Spencer's who witnessed the confrontation from an apartment window, seconds this assertion. "He had surrendered," says Addison. "Why would you let the dog eat him up?"

What followed sounds like a scene out of Bull Connor's Alabama. "It hit an artery and blood just started squirting out of my arm," Spencer recalls. "That dog just went crazy." After chewing on his arm for a while, the German shepherd latched on to his left leg. "By the time that dog got to my leg it was in a frenzy. That dog literally ate my leg."

As Spencer relates this run-in with the cops he's seated on the back porch of his girlfriend's house in the Hiawatha neighborhood of Minneapolis. The Air Force veteran pulls up his left pant leg to display a grossly misshapen calf. A large chunk of the muscle is simply gone. His right arm isn't in much better shape. A snakelike, inch-thick scar, where his arm was sliced open to release internal bleeding, runs the length of his forearm.

Spencer, who is half black, half Asian, believes it's no accident that he received such rough treatment from the cops. "It's a war," he declares. "It's ethnic people against the police."

It's difficult even to construct a "police version" of what transpired on March 12th. Minneapolis police spokesman Ron Reier initially insisted that the only public record related to the incident was a one-page printout that included no narrative of the arrest. After City Pages faxed over a copy of the state's Data Practices Act, however, spelling out exactly what information is supposed to be public, Reier was a little more forthcoming.

"From the point of jumping out the window the story differs considerably," says Reier, summarizing the police reports, which he still declined to provide. He insists that Spencer repeatedly refused to obey orders and physically resisted arrest. "There's at least four or five times here in two paragraphs where he's ordered the suspect to stop and comply," he says.

Reier further maintains that the extreme force was justified because the officers did not know if Spencer was armed. "How do we know that the person is unarmed?" he asks. "We don't until we go up and do a frisk or a pat-down of the person in custody."

Regardless of the exact sequence of events, there is no doubting the severity of Spencer's injuries. After the dog was called off, the suspect was handcuffed and transported to Hennepin County Medical Center in Blad's squad car. Despite Spencer's extensive bleeding, no ambulance was called to the scene. Over the next six days he underwent four different surgical procedures on his leg and arm. The total bill for the hospital stay was $32,000. Luckily, Spencer has health insurance.

Upon being released from the hospital he was booked into the Hennepin County Jail and charged with failure to register as a sex offender. (In 1996 Spencer was convicted of second degree criminal sexual conduct.) He pleaded guilty to the charge last month and will be sentenced in June. The standard sentence for such an offense is a year and a day in prison. To add insult to injury, Spencer says that the authorities never returned his personal possessions. He lost his clothes, cell phone, keys, and glasses.

Spencer is now exploring his legal options. He's talked with an attorney about filing a civil suit against the police department, but has been hampered by the city's refusal to release any records pertaining to the incident. Michelle Gross, a founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality, says that the police often withhold information in order to hide misconduct by officers. "We see it frequently where police either don't document or literally hide documents," she charges.

Spencer also expects to be a plaintiff in a potential class action lawsuit that was filed last month in United States District Court. The suit charges that Minneapolis cops repeatedly violate the civil rights of residents. It seeks changes in the way officers are trained and in how allegations of police misconduct are investigated.

Spencer has not held a job since his run-in with the cops. "I went and applied for food stamps and hopefully I'll get those this month," he says. "That will help out some but for the most part I'm living off my girlfriend."

He's undergoing physical therapy once a week and hoping to start psychological counseling as well. Spencer says he has repeated nightmares about the incident and is terrified of dogs. He maintains that his only interest in pursuing legal remedies is to prevent further acts of violence. "I'm not trying to play Malcolm X," he says, "but if I don't do it it's going to happen to someone else."

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