St. Paul settles police misconduct allegations with $90,000 [VIDEO]
The city of St. Paul has agreed to pay $90,000 to two men who say they were victims of excessive police force.
Last July, two officers restrained and handcuffed Craig Spelbrink and Robert Geistfield in a St. Paul parking garage. The two men sued the officers, alleging there was no cause for the arrest.
"I think it's clear from the video evidence that neither man was posing a threat to the officers, neither man was trying to resist the efforts of the officers, neither man was trying to flee," says Jeff Storms, attorney for Spelbrink and Geistfield. "To use that type of force on really passive, reasonable citizens is unreasonable and unconstitutional."
On the night of the incident, the two men were celebrating a friend's birthday at the Eagle Street Grille, according to the civil complaint. They left the bar around 12:30, and decided to grab a cab home because they had been drinking. But first they had to pick up a few things from a friend's truck in a nearby parking ramp.
Surveillance footage from the parking garage shows that Spelbrink lost his friends somewhere along the way. While looking for them, he encountered the two officers -- Matthew Sweeney and David Stokes -- who forcibly brought him to the ground.
The camera is partially obstructed, so it's hard to see exactly what happened next, but the lawsuit says Stokes "struck" Spelbrink in the face, causing a Craniofacial injury.
Sweeney continued up the stairs, where he encountered Geistfeld. Within seconds, Sweeney grabbed Geistfeld, wrestled him to the ground, and cuffed him.
"By just taking those men to the ground, not giving them an opportunity to comply, that violated the Fourth Amendment," says Storms. "In fact, the way they conducted that stop was so intrusive and without probable cause that it really amounts to a false arrest."
In police reports, the two officers recount different versions of how the incident played out. Stokes says they were flagged down by a man outside the parking garage, who told them a "white male with a red shirt had been robbed and was chasing the suspect." The officer also notes they could hear "sounds of yelling and swearing and fighting." He and Sweeney entered the ramp and saw Spelbrink -- a white guy wearing a red shirt -- coming down the stairs. "We ordered him to the ground and when he did not comply, we took him to the ground," writes Stokes.
But according to Sweeney's report, the man wearing a red shirt was the suspect -- not the victim. From the report:
"When I arrived on scene Officer Stokes was speaking to the complainant who told us a male in a red shirt had just robbed a male in a white shirt. While Officer Stokes was getting further information from the complainant, we heard a commotion coming from the second floor of the parking ramp. We heard a vehicle horn sounding and male voices yelling at each other."
The two officers entered the parking garage, where they found Spelbrink coming down the stairs. Sweeney reports that Spelbrink tried to break free after they got him on the ground.
After Sweeney continued upstairs, he ran into Geistfeld. Here's Sweeney's explanation of what happened next:
"I didn't know if the male was the suspect, the victim or something else. I yelled at him to get on the ground. The male stopped in his tracks and looked at me with wide eyes and a blank thousand yard stare. It appeared to me the male was thinking of either running or fighting with me. After yelling at him to get on the ground for the second time with no response, I shoved the male in his chest with both hands."
Sweeney concludes the report by noting that, after everyone settled down, they discovered that the two men were "heavily intoxicated" friends who were "play fighting."
The officers brought Spelbrink to detox, where he spent 25 hours. Neither man was charged with a crime. In the lawsuit, filed last October, the two men deny that there was any fight.
The St. Paul City Council planned to approve the $90,000 settlement at its meeting Wednesday afternoon.
"It allows us and the police officers to put the allegations to rest, concentrate on keeping St. Paul safe," says St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing. "Police officers protect the public and often make difficult and split-second decisions that may not be easily measured."
Grewing notes that the settlement doesn't mean the city is admitting guilt. "At this point, it's just resolving the case."
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