On the morning of September 13th, a black child in Ramsey County’s custody at Boys Totem Town was injured so badly during a restraint that he sustained a broken wrist and required surgery.
The only witness report in the case file indicates that Supervisor Joe Fiebiger “lost his temper” and “cranked too hard” on the child’s arm.
The original complaint details the child being taken to the ground by several staff members after allegedly attempting to punch Fiebiger. After the child was handcuffed, compliant, and being escorted to SHU (i.e., a small, solitary, locked cell), Fiebiger traded places with one of the escorting officers and twisted the child’s arm, asking him, “How does this feel now?”, according to the complaint.
The complaint goes on to describe Fiebiger twisting the child’s arm a second time until he screamed in pain. Imagine how this child must have felt.
St. Paul Police conducted an investigation, which includes the original complaint, plus interviews with one guard who witnessed the incident, the child victim, and the assault suspect Fiebiger. Curiously, the case file has no information from any of the other named witnesses.
The case was sent to Hennepin County for charging due to conflicts arising from Ramsey County's prosecution and placement of the child at Boys Totem Town, according to Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. Choi's office could also have to defend the county in any civil suit resulting from the child’s injuries.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office declined to bring charges. When asked for the reasoning behind this decision, Freeman said that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Fiebiger intended to break the child’s wrist.
We're not surprised by his decision. Freeman also recently stated he doesn’t have enough evidence yet to bring charges against Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor for shooting the unarmed Justine Damond earlier this year after she called 911 to report an assault near her home.
And in 2016, by deferring to police statements over the statements of over a dozen black eyewitnesses, Freeman couldn’t manage to find enough evidence to charge Minneapolis police officers Dustin Schwarze and Mark Ringgenberg after they shot the unarmed Jamar Clark in the head.
The report on the child injured at Boys Totem contains more details about his being told to choose between solitary confinement or school when he was sick that morning and being told he wouldn’t get to eat if he wouldn’t follow directions. The child also reported Fiebiger taunted him in solitary confiement after breaking his wrist, and told him “That’s what you get."
In Fiebiger’s police statement several weeks after the incident, he denied being angry or using excessive force, and speculated the child might have broken his own wrist by punching a wall in solitary. (Recall the police theory that Freddie Gray broke his own spine while in custody. Nobody went to jail for that either).
Fiebiger's account is disputed by the only named witness interviewed, a guard, who said that Fiebiger “lost his temper” and “cranked too hard.” We must ask: Why he was “cranking” at all? The child was already cuffed, compliant, and being escorted by other officers.
The second witness was not interviewed, though a written statement was logged as received. That statement is missing from the case file. St. Paul Police Department spokesman Mike Ernster said this written statement was “not in our records unit” but “may be in the file that was sent to Hennepin County.” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman assured us his office had reviewed that statement. The case file contains no record the third witness was interviewed or submitted a statement.
Generously, we might call this a careless oversight. The reason Freeman gives for declining to bring charges is “not enough evidence.”
Did they try to find evidence?
As citizens, we entrust the state with the power to enforce laws and protect us. If we are to prevent abuse, that power must be paired with accountability. When members of the public, especially children, experiences violence during police encounters or in correctional facilities, it must be of grave concern for the entire community.
Too often, biased standards for obtaining and weighing evidence are applied when police or corrections officers are accused of misconduct. Powerful people break the law without consequence.
In Minnesota, police and corrections officers benefit from credulous, perfunctory “investigations” and consequently are almost never held accountable for aggressive or violent behaviors, even against children.
In another recent case, Officer Michael Soucheray of the Saint Paul Police Department and his partner responded to a call from a shelter for sexually exploited youth. A suicidal 14-year old Native American girl needed to be transported to the hospital. According to police reports, the child was agitated and refused to speak to police or get in the car.
The child was handcuffed and went limp while she was sobbing and screaming. Officers placed her in the car at which point she stood up on the seat and spat in Soucheray’s face. According to a criminal complaint, Soucheray punched the girl in the face twice, grabbed her jaw, and called her a “fucking bitch.”
Is this the kind of behavior we expect from someone trained to protect and serve?
In his initial statement, Soucheray admitted striking the girl in the face out of a “natural reaction.” (Ramsey County declined to press charges against the girl for spitting at him.) In court he changed his position and testified that he was trying to startle her and “may have brushed her cheek.” There is internal squad car video showing the incident and readers can assess for themselves how credible they find this creative defense; we view his conduct as reprehensible.
In May, a jury acquitted him of misdemeanor assault for the punches. Even when the evidence of misconduct is sufficiently overwhelming that an officer is actually brought to trial, juries often elect to look past it. Jurors acquitted former officer Geronimo Yanez for shooting Philando Castile, despite compelling dashcam and witness video.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell acknowledged after Soucheray was acquitted that the video was “troubling” and said, “The officer’s actions do not in any way, shape, or form reflect or align with our values, expectations or mission.” Soucheray resigned from the police force last month, just before results from internal affairs investigations could be completed.
Those investigations end with his resignation, and he remains free to seek work in other police departments, or as a corrections officer. Departments often ignore or endorse their vicious ways. The Minneapolis Police Department hired officers Schwarze and Ringgenberg, the officers who killed Jamar Clark, despite prior accusations of excessive force.
Across Minnesota and the US, we see a similar pattern where misconduct is not followed by any meaningful investigation or accountability. We need society, from county attorneys to jury members, to do more to protect citizens, especially children, and especially children of color.
An independent state-level position tasked with investigating and, where warranted, prosecuting police and corrections officers’ use-of-force cases should be convened immediately. This new special prosecutor's office must also track all officer misconduct cases, so it is no longer possible for bad cops to shuffle from one department to another.
We have seen that police departments cannot or will not honestly investigate their own.
County attorneys work too closely with police to provide outside accountability. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which collaborates with law enforcement agencies and includes many former law enforcement agents, has not and cannot fulfill this role. Even Freeman recently expressed frustration at how the BCA has handled evidence collection in the Justine Damond shooting.
Attorney Bob Bennett, representing the family, has previously accused the BCA of “improperly elicit[ing] false police statements” that helped excuse the shooting of Dawn Pfister -- a Hennepin County grand jury declined, as usual, to bring criminal charges, but her family won a recent $1.75 million settlement. We have previously detailed the shortcomings of the BCA investigation in the Jamar Clark shooting.
Minnesota needs an independent special prosecutor office that will ask why all three witnesses weren’t interviewed when a black child’s wrist was broken by someone paid to supervise his rehabilitation. We need an office that will demand a response when a cop punches a traumatized girl in the face. We need an office that will ensure accountability when agents of the state brutalize us, and our children.
We cannot accept business as usual.
Rachel Wannarka, Ph.D., is a member of the Minneapolis NAACP Criminal Justice Reform Committee and St. Paul Federation of Teachers. She is a special education teacher at Humboldt High school, St. Paul Public Schools. Jason Sole is the President of the Minneapolis NAACP and an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Hamline University.