Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer Jerry Piland was cleared of brutality charges by Police Merit Board.
The vote at 3:55 a.m. after more than 24 hours of testimony generated hugs and backslaps among rank-and-file officers who considered the outcome a referendum on acceptable uses of force. It also sparked a promise of recriminations for the IMPD from black clergy members, who had held up the bloodied, battered image of 15-year-old Brandon Johnson's face as a symbol of callous police conduct and needed change. "The community is not going to be happy about this," said the Rev. Richard Willoughby, pastor of Promised Land Christian Community Church, who attended most of the hearing that stretched just over two day. "I am going to start making calls right now and we will decide what we will do."
The verdict was also a defeat for IMPD leadership's plan to crack down on what they perceive as rogue cops. Public Safety Director Frank Straub and Police Chief Paul Ciesielski said Piland's treatment of Johnson was the type of police aggression they want to weed out. 'I've said it throughout and will say it again," Ciesielski said after the ruling. "Excessive force will not be tolerated. We respect the Merit Board's decision but this was clearly a case of excessive force." Mayor Greg Ballard also said that his administration would hold the line against police misconduct, despite the ruling. “I am dismayed and disappointed by the Merit Board’s decision not to uphold the Chief’s recommendation," Ballard said in a statement from his office. "We will continue to raise the standards and reform IMPD so that incidents like this do not happen in the future.”
Regarding the quality of merit board members -- the public service director appoints four of the seven -- and Straub said he will decide whether to replace them as the terms of current members end. Prior to today's press conference, Johnson's attorney, Stephen M. Wagner, issued a page-long statement on the teen's behalf today. It concluded: "For Brandon, this case isn’t about larger community issues or the agenda of others in the community. This is about justice. This matter is far from over.” Tanya Bell, president and CEO of Indiana Black Expo, also was “displeased" with the decision.
In a statement, Bell said, "Police officers do not have a license to use force by any means, regardless of the circumstances, and justice demands more restrictions on the rights of police officers. I hope today's ruling does not cause us to take two steps backwards in our efforts to establish better police and community relations in this city.” A local ministers' group called the merit board's decision "ridiculous." "The action taken by the IMPD Merit Board in the Brandon Johnson case is the headstone on the grave of trust for IMPD with many in our community," said part of a statement from the Baptist Ministers Alliance of Indianapolis & Vicinity.
Kautzman wouldn't let Piland speak afterward but during merit board testimony Piland spoke at length about being a dedicated cop who did just as he was trained when he jumped in to help some fellow officer on May 16 in Eastside subdivision on his off day. "I like to know what is going on in the area I live," he said during 2 ½ hours of testimony. 'I thought, uh, what's going on down there?" Merit Board President Jeff Oberlies said the panel largely agreed with argument laid out by Kautzman; that another officer inflicted most of the damage to Brandon's face before Piland even laid an open palm strike on him. In fact, said Oberlies, Officer David Carney was responsible for the whole thing -- and probably should have been the one disciplined. "Carney probably made a bad decision to arrest Johnson in the first place," Oberlies said. "From there it escalated to where he had to punch him to knock him down because he said Brandon resisted and things just got worse."
Board member Joe Slash voted against absolving Piland. "When you look at the pictures of Brandon Johnson's face it demands accountability,." Slash said. Oberlies said the board was also influenced by testimony form a Wishard Memorial Hospital emergency room doctor who said Brandon's injuries were not as bad as they looked. He suffered no serious injuries or broken bones, the doctor said, and was discharged that day in good condition. "They say a picture is worth a thousand words," Oberlies said. "But in this case, a thousand words that we didn't know about went with the picture."
Ministers' group: Merit board's decision 'ridiculous'
The members of a local ministers' group today decried the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Merit Board's vote to clear suspended IMPD officer Jerry Piland of wrongdoing in the alleged use of execessive force against a teen. The Baptist Minister’s Alliance of Indianapolis & Vicinity, led by the Rev. Stephen J. Clay, had called for the firing of Frank Straub, director of the Indianapolis Department of Public Safety, which oversees the IMPD.
Here is the ministers' group's statement, authored by Clay:
"The Baptist Minister’s Alliance and other religious and civic community leaders are sickened by the reprehensible and ridiculous decision handed down by the Merit Board under the cover of darkness early this morning. The action taken by the IMPD Merit Board in the Brandon Johnson case is the headstone on the grave of trust for IMPD with many in our community.
"We believe that this unprecedented 'production of shame,' much like a movie made for Hollywood, was constructed with this end in mind. There are no real surprises in this production, just more victims and increased polarization in our community.
"Until we have a Mayor that cares as much about Public Safety as he does about Economic Development we can brace ourselves for more of the same. If Mayor Ballard is disappointed with the determination made by the Merit Board and if he is not a co-producer in this 'production of shame,' then give us some substantial leadership.
"We have a police department where the morale has no heart-beat and a Public Safety Director whose management style is more polarizing that productive.
"This recent decision by the IMPD Merit Board sends a clear signal to police officers that it’s okay to use excessive force and even deadly force on our youth. The reward for excessive force and police misconduct is that the Merit Board will determine that officer’s actions will be sustained, back pay will be reinstated and they can return to duty ASAP!
"There are some in this city that will contend that this is primarily about race. While race is a factor in this matter, we believe the larger issue is about a system and a process that is corrupt and has been since its construction."Finally, we must caution the family of the late Eric Wells and other families victimized by the poor judgment of Officer David Bisard to brace yourselves and get ready to have your grief and injuries compounded by a corrupt system that is designed to exonerate its own."