The Yo-Yo Files
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.
Savior dismisses Flowers's complaints as groundless. "I did not use excessive force, only defensive force," he says, adding that he now believes he "did not use enough force to protect a witness who was trying to help.
"I'm from the minority community, from north Minneapolis," notes Savior, who is Native American. "I came from the projects. And I'm aware of the need for checks and balances where people can complain against the government. But I think in this case there was an abuse of the system on his part."
Savior wasted no time in notifying authorities of his own concerns about the incident. On March 4 he faxed his report on the encounter with Flowers to Hennepin County Child Protection, the office that reviews complaints about possible abuse of children by caregivers. He felt Flowers should be investigated for child endangerment for his conduct at Walgreens, he explained later; he was especially concerned because he had heard that Flowers made his living as a daycare provider. Perhaps, he reasoned, officials should pull his license.
And it was that possibility, Flowers says, that made it impossible for him to abandon the case or compromise. He had filed his complaints only because he wanted vindication for his daughters, he explains. But once he learned of Savior's overture to Child Protection, he concluded he had to fight the case to the end--or risk a blemish on his record, and thus the loss of his livelihood.
He turned down several plea bargains prosecutors offered, demanding instead that his case go before a jury. His day in court finally came on October 4, seven months after his arrest.
The trial began with statements taken from Flowers's children, read into the record so they wouldn't have to testify in person. Then a number of Walgreens employees took the stand; most of their testimony suggested that Flowers had been angry and the argument loud. None had seen more than the final moments of the incident.
Savior provided more detail, his account on the witness stand essentially mirroring the version he had spelled out in his police report. He described Flowers as having been "very hostile, violent, and angry" as he demanded to know why Savior had searched the kids, then demanded to see a manager. The two argued for a few minutes, an increasingly hysterical girl between them.
"His manner was very threatening due to his large size," Savior recalled. "During the first few moments, I asked several times for Flowers to quiet down and tried to explain to him what took place between the group of children and I, as Flowers yelled that these children were his."
At that point, Savior testified, he began poking Flowers in the chest. He brought his finger up to the level of Flowers's nose--to make him focus, he said. He asked Flowers for identification, saying he needed to check whether there were any warrants out for his arrest.
At some point during the argument, Flowers mentioned his sister. He says he meant to let the officer know that he didn't harbor any disrespect to police.
Right about then a shopper by the name of Harold Austerman was making his way to the back of the store. A few years before, Austerman had done a stint as a security guard. He owned what he described as a "private library" of law-enforcement manuals, and he made a point of greeting Savior whenever he saw him. "I could see trouble was brewing," Austerman recalled during his own turn on the stand. "I walked behind Officer Savior and said, 'I've got your back.'"
After that things turned physical--fast. Flowers says he turned to go. Savior thought he saw Flowers pulling back to punch him. Austerman reached out and snared one of Flowers's arms. All three men also put their hands on Tarvanisha--to protect her from the others, each said.
"As other officers rushed in the door, Flowers grabbed his daughter, who was standing nearby crying," Savior recalled. "Flowers used his daughter as a shield to prevent arrest and was choking his daughter with his grasp, in such a fitful manner that it endangered the child. After several officers demanded [that he] release his daughter, Flowers refused. Officers were forced to pry open his grasp of his daughter, finally getting her free, at which point Flowers was wrestled and knocked to the ground, where he was handcuffed."
During cross-examination one of Flowers's attorneys, Keith Ellison, challenged Savior: "Isn't it true," he asked, "that you've flown off the handle in the past when people have talked to you in a way you didn't like?"
"I haven't handled other situations..." Savior began answering, switching tacks in midsentence. "On the spur of the moment, I've probably made some mistakes." Later Ellison told the judge that "Savior has been the target of excessive force lawsuits" and that "several complaints have been brought against him for excessive force."
Hennepin County District Court records show no such lawsuits against Savior. Neither Ellison nor Flowers's other attorney, Alfred Griffin, returned calls for this story.
Court files do show that at the time he was testifying in Flowers's trial, Savior was a defendant in an unrelated federal suit that was in the process of being settled out of court. In 1992, according to that suit, he had served two search warrants on the home of a man named Russell Swart, who was subsequently convicted on narcotics charges. During the raid, Savior confiscated most of the man's belongings, including a lot of expensive electronic equipment and a dozen Timberwolves tickets.
After he was released from prison in 1995, Swart tried to reclaim his property, only to find it had vanished. At the time the MPD's Property & Evidence Unit was enmeshed in a scandal centered on missing goods. Savior was not implicated in that controversy, but he was named in Swart's suit. The terms of the settlement have not been disclosed.
Savior had faced allegations of violent behavior in another incident, two years after he joined the force, in 1987. According to police records, he had exchanged barbs with some teens hanging out on the sidewalk outside a South Side bar frequented by police officers. Savior and some of the witnesses said one of the youths pulled a large knife and waved it at him. Later, according to the police report of Savior's arrest, he drew his gun and fired six shots. Prosecutors ended up charging him with felony assault. He was acquitted by a jury. The case was investigated by the MPD's Internal Affairs Unit, but no information on the results is available, because the unit destroys files that are more than six years old.
Neither the 1987 incident nor the civil-rights lawsuit came up at Flowers's trial last fall--at least not before the proceedings came to a screeching halt. On the third day of testimony, a 28-year-old Walgreens cosmetics clerk named Jarolyn Preese casually mentioned that she'd been questioned about the incident three months earlier by an investigator. She couldn't remember which agency the man was from, she said, but he had tape-recorded her statement.
Within minutes Judge Robert Lynn called for a recess and sent the jury home for the afternoon. Lynn didn't tell the jurors what had caused the sudden break in the proceedings, but to the attorneys in the courtroom the problem was clear: Long before the trial, in the phase known as "discovery," the defense had asked prosecutors to turn over any records concerning the incident, as well as any past complaints lodged against Savior.
They had received a pile of documents, most of which were declared off-limits to the public. But, both sets of attorneys told Judge Lynn, there had never been any mention of an investigator interrogating the witnesses. If there had been such an inquiry, each side deserved a chance to review the statements and compare them to those given at trial.
By the time court reconvened the next morning, Lynn had determined that the mystery investigator had come from the police department's Internal Affairs Unit, and that he had taped interviews with at least 11 witnesses. Transcribing the recordings and giving both sides a chance to examine them could take weeks. A visibly unhappy Lynn called in the mystified jurors, thanked them for their service, and declared a mistrial. Flowers's saga was about to get several chapters longer.
Flowers isn't the only member of his family who has been talking to lawyers and spending time in courtrooms in recent months. As he descended into legal limbo, his sister, Alisa Clemons, was getting ready to go back to court in her own fight with the MPD--a dispute so tortuous it resembled a Hollywood drama more than an employment dispute.
In 1981 Flowers and Clemons, then teens, filed a brutality complaint against Lt. Mike Sauro--the cop whose name would become familiar to Minneapolis taxpayers more than a decade later, when a pair of lawsuits filed against him cost the city more than $1 million. Sauro had gone to the family's home in response to a call for help on a medical emergency; he and Flowers argued, and a row ensued.
Flowers doesn't remember the complaint his mother and sister filed producing any results, and MPD records are no longer available. But then-Chief of Police Tony Bouza did encourage Clemons to join the force, and three years later she signed up.
Much has been written about Clemons's first decade on the force. She earned high marks among residents of the neighborhoods she policed, and her personnel file was peppered with letters and memos commending her bravery and hard work. It also contained numerous complaints from her about harassment from fellow officers.
By 1992 Clemons found herself at the center of possibly the most bizarre scandal the MPD has ever weathered. She was among a number of African-American police officers who received menacing, anonymous letters in the mail. An FBI probe quickly zeroed in on Clemons herself; the investigators believed that the letters were an attempt to discredit the MPD by portraying it as a haven for racists. (See "Down by Law," August 2, 1995). Three years later the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minneapolis announced that Clemons would not be prosecuted in connection with the letters.
Less than a month later, Clemons's attorney notified the department that she planned to file a harassment suit. A few days after that, Chief Robert Olson fired her, citing "overwhelming" evidence that she had been involved in the hate-mail campaign. Six months later an arbitrator concluded that there was no solid evidence pointing to any involvement by Clemons in the hate-mail incident and ordered her reinstated. The following year, the city settled her discrimination suit for $400,000.
But according to a new suit filed by Clemons this past January, that was hardly the end of her problems. After winning her job back, the complaint alleges, she was made the target of "reprisal discrimination." (MPD officials refused to discuss Clemons's accusations, citing the pending litigation.)
Three months after her first lawsuit was settled, the new case alleges, Clemons was transferred to the MPD's Fourth Precinct, where she reported to Lt. Sue Piontek. According to the complaint, Piontek ordered Clemons--who holds a supervisory rank--to clean and dust the precinct offices, buy cookies and punch for the precinct, drive her to meetings, and purchase a tampon dispenser; as a result Clemons's co-workers began calling her "Katie the cleaning lady" and "Katie the bag lady."
(Piontek, coincidentally, made a brief appearance in Flowers's case: It was she who, the night of his arrest, retrieved the videotapes from the Walgreens security system and turned them over to the MPD's evidence unit, and she also took a call from Patunya Cofield complaining about Savior's behavior. No one has accused Piontek of meddling in the dispute. But to Flowers's advocates, the episode suggests that sometimes, Minneapolis is a very small town.)
In July 1998 Clemons filed an Internal Affairs complaint against Piontek. Shortly thereafter, her suit says, she was cited by Piontek for various violations of department policy and transferred to another unit. Clemons was ultimately cleared of many of the alleged infractions, and the Minneapolis Police Federation complained to Chief Olson that the transfer was retaliatory.
In September of that year, Clemons filed a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and last year the agency concluded that there was "reasonable cause" to believe that discrimination had occurred. Late last year Clemons received a transfer to yet another unit, where she would have to report to a man against whom she had filed a sexual-harassment complaint ten years earlier. Another officer asked to switch assignments with her, but administrators refused. Clemons declined to comment for this story. Her attorney, Donna Roback, says she believes that department brass tried to push her client to quit.
On January 4 Clemons was taken to the hospital because one side of her body was paralyzed. Roback says doctors eventually diagnosed her as having a work-related psychological condition called a conversion reaction, whose symptoms often resemble those of a stroke. Clemons has been unable to work ever since, according to Roback, and has been denied worker's compensation benefits.
By the time he made the fateful trip to Walgreens, Flowers had been following his sister's ordeal for a decade and a half. But it wasn't until his own case began wending its way through the courts that he began to understand just how complicated fighting the bureaucracy could be--and how tricky it was to get information on even the most basic details.
For starters, Flowers has never seen records of the investigation sparked when Savior notified Child Protection about the incident at Walgreens. All he knows is that in April of last year a county investigator met with him and his kids. He says the investigator later told him that he had recommended closing the case. But when he contacted a supervisor in the unit, Flowers says he was informed that there was suspicion that his kids' statements were the result of "coaching," and that the case would stay open until the criminal case was over. He still has received no official word about its disposition. (By law, information regarding child-protection investigations is private unless they end up in court; officials can't even say whether they have a file on a particular case.)
Likewise, the files compiled by both Civilian Review and the Internal Affairs Unit are sealed. Officials at Civilian Review say they've handled four complaints involving Savior, none of which they can discuss because none was upheld. MPD administrators say Internal Affairs records show two complaints against the officer, not including the unfinished probe into the Walgreens affair. One of the two earlier charges was determined to be groundless, and in the other there was insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the complaint. Because Internal Affairs records go back no further than 1994, the files contain no hint of the criminal charges filed against Savior in 1987.
MPD representatives also won't discuss the taped interviews that caused Flowers's first trial to grind to a halt, except to say that they gave the tapes to Civilian Review when that agency began its probe. Civilian Review officials did not return City Pages' phone calls seeking information about the tapes. Assistant City Attorney Michael Hess, the most recent prosecutor to handle the Flowers case, says his office never had access to the tapes until the judge found them.
The secrecy surrounding officers' track records is troubling, says D.P. Von Blaricom, a former Bellevue, Washington, police chief who frequently serves as an expert witness in law-enforcement-related trials throughout the nation. It's fine for police departments to protect the details of officers' personnel files, he says, but the public has more than a passing interest in knowing whether officers have been accused of wrongdoing.
What's more, contends Von Blaricom, destroying records after only six years means police managers have no way of identifying potentially troubling patterns in an officer's behavior. "It's easy to track," he offers. "Anyone with a simple desktop computer can do it. If they're not doing it, that suggests it's for one of two reasons; either they don't care, or they don't want to know."
On November 2, three weeks after the mistrial was declared, Flowers left his house a little after noon to take one of his daycare charges, Clemons's daughter, to school. One of his daughters was in the car as well, as was a friend of his, Derrick Fields. They stopped at a convenience store, where Flowers bought a pack of cigarettes.
MPD Officer Lance DuPaul was patrolling the area in his squad car. He watched Flowers get out of his car, then pulled in behind the vehicle and observed Fields talking to someone in a blue Cadillac. DuPaul won't say why he started watching the men; a police report he filed later explains only that "there have been numerous complaints of drug-dealing and prostitution in that area."
After a few minutes, Flowers walked up to DuPaul's squad, the officer reported, and a brief conversation ensued. The way Flowers recalls it, DuPaul "said I looked suspicious and was I gonna rob the store. I showed him the cigarettes, and said, 'Ask the guy in the store.'"
Next, DuPaul reported, Flowers opened his car door and picked up one of the girls. "I told him I needed to ID him and find out what they were doing," he continued. "Flowers stated, 'Nothing, I just went to the store!' I then asked him again for an ID and he said, 'No!' I then thought he was trying to hide his identity for whatever reason."
DuPaul called for backup and told Flowers to put the child back in the car; when Flowers refused, he told him to get into his squad. "He still refused and started to walk away," the officer reported, adding that he then grabbed hold of Flowers. "He pulled away from me several times. He was holding the child in his right arm and would not let her go....I held him against the building with my arm. He kept resisting by pushing the child into me."
Several more officers arrived, and soon Flowers was sitting, handcuffed, in the back of DuPaul's squad. DuPaul told Flowers that he would have to take him downtown and book him; when Flowers pointed out that this would leave the children without supervision, the officers agreed to come to his house and check his ID. Flowers was given a citation for obstructing the legal process and released. When he went to court two weeks later, the prosecutor dismissed the charge.
Flowers says he never got an official explanation of what motivated the arrest. But the incident spooked him--in large part because many of the officers seemed to be aware of what he did for a living. "They kept coming up to the car," he recalls, "and saying, 'So you keep kids.'" He figures the cops knew who he was--Clemons's brother and the guy who was causing so much trouble for Savior. Perhaps, he surmises, they were trying to tip the scales for his second trial; why else would they have accused him, just as Savior had during the incident at Walgreens, of using small children as shields?
DuPaul, a four-year MPD veteran who is assigned to the Community Response Team in the Second Precinct, says Flowers's suspicion is groundless. "I had no idea who this guy was," he says. "This was the first contact I ever had with [Flowers]. I had no prior contact or knowledge of who he was related to."
Still, law-enforcement expert Von Blaricom is not surprised at Flowers's conclusion that the officers were out to get him. When people--especially cops--sue police departments, he says, they usually feel persecuted, and the feeling frequently extends to their families. "It could be that there actually is a conspiracy to harass [Clemons] and her family," Von Blaricom notes. "Or it could be that they think there is a conspiracy to harass them and they keep reacting as if there is."
By the end of last year, Flowers's fears were being eclipsed by fatigue. Though his second arrest had disappeared quickly and quietly, there were no signs that his first case would be resolved anytime soon. His second trial in the Walgreens case kept getting scheduled, canceled, and rescheduled. At one point his attorney was enmeshed in a murder case; other times the judge was busy. What's more, both of his complaints against Savior were reaching dead ends: In January Flowers got a letter from an evaluator at the U.S. Department of Justice's Washington, D.C. headquarters, saying there was not enough evidence to go forward with an FBI inquiry. A few days later, he received notification that Civilian Review had dismissed his complaint for the same reason.
Not that Flowers had had high expectations for either case: With a cop in the family, he knew that Civilian Review investigates only a fraction of the complaints filed by citizens, and sustains even fewer. As for the FBI, Flowers had ample recollections of the three-year investigation it had taken to clear his sister's name. (Flowers filed another complaint with the FBI after his November arrest, but says he isn't holding his breath.)
Besides, he had other things to worry about. By that time, his sister had become disabled and was convalescing in a nursing home; he visited her daily, helped her see her kids and attend church. Compared to her problems, his legal ordeal seemed minor.
By the time his seventeenth and last court date rolled around on February 22, Flowers was worn out. "It was just holding my life up," he says. "I didn't want to [fight] it all the way to the end. It was just too much pressure." His lawyers were ready to be done with the case, too, he recalls. They told him that while they felt he had done nothing wrong, he would probably be found guilty of disorderly conduct.
In the end, Flowers had what is known as a "stipulated facts trial"--a trial without a jury in which the judge reads the police reports, transcripts, or other documents and renders a verdict. The arrangement is often used when neither side wants to compromise, but a full trial is not warranted.
It was all over in a couple of hours. The courthouse lottery assigned the case to Judge Lucy Wieland. She read the transcript of Flowers's first trial over lunch and reached a verdict: Not guilty on the two more serious charges, assault and obstruction of the legal process. Guilty on the charge of disorderly conduct. Flowers would not have to serve time, and if he didn't commit a similar offense for the next year, the matter would be wiped from his record.
The solution angers Savior. "I feel that the system really let us down," the officer says. "I say he was given a good break, because the government did not do all it could for his children."
Flowers also considers the result less than perfect. He says he accepted the compromise in part because his attorneys told him that there would be no Child Protection action or challenge to his daycare license.
More important, he was finally free to discuss the whole mess with his daughter. Until the second trial, he had refused to talk to her about what had happened at Walgreens because he didn't want to be accused of influencing her testimony. But he'd also worried she would think the problems were somehow her fault. When he told her it was all over, he recalls, "she had the biggest smile on her face. It took a year, but the relief on my daughter's face was enough for me to continue on."
Yet, Flowers says, he is not quite done with the case. "The police still ride by my house," he muses, "and I'm still in fear of them. I'm looking for another house to get out of this neighborhood. I don't feel like it's over. But I feel like my daughter's mind is at rest."
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