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Ind. cop may be fired for alleged abuse of teen

Some black community leaders say it was racially motivated

By Ken Kusmer
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — The city’s police chief called Thursday for the firing of a white officer who he said repeatedly struck a 15-year-old biracial boy in the face during an arrest after the teen had been subdued by other officers.

Chief Paul Ciesielski said Officer Jerry Piland needlessly struck Brandon Johnson several times during the May 16 arrest near the boy’s home. Johnson was left with gaping wounds on his swollen face and a black eye.

“It was a difficult decision, but I know it was the right decision to terminate his employment because that certainly serves as an example that we have a zero-tolerance policy,” Ciesielski said at a news conference.

Ciesielski’s recommendation will go to the Civilian Police Merit Board, which ultimately will decide whether to fire Piland.

The teen’s family and black community leaders have called for a federal investigation into whether Johnson’s civil rights were violated. Piland, 36, and the other three officers directly involved in the arrest are white, while Johnson’s mother is black and his father is white.

“I’m grateful to have one bad cop off the streets, but there was a lot of wrongdoing here that day,” Johnson’s mother, Chantay Chandler, said at a news conference Thursday at the family’s home. Family representatives called on the department to fire the four officers directly involved in the arrest, but not a fifth officer who stood on the periphery.

“One token firing is not enough,” said the family’s attorney, Stephen Wagner.

Ciesielski said one of the other officers, Stacy Lettinga, received a reprimand for wrongfully arresting another youth at the scene, and that the three others had been exonerated. None of the five had any prior record of excessive force, and Piland has received several commendations.

Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi said last week that he was investigating the matter and had not decided whether to bring charges against any of the officers. He said he decided not to charge Johnson because it wasn’t in the best interests of the teen or the community.

A police report said witnesses saw Johnson’s brother try to kick in the door of an abandoned building near their home and officers who responded went to arrest him for breaking and entering. Police say Johnson and others protested the arrest, and that when an officer tried to arrest Johnson he resisted, squaring up as if to strike the officer and breaking the officer’s grip when he was nearly handcuffed.

Piland, who was off duty and lived in the neighborhood, showed up in plain clothes and tried to help the other officers, the chief said. He smacked Johnson in the face with his open hand and used his knee to apply pain when the teen fell to the ground until a third officer interceded, he said.

At that point, Piland should have helped control Johnson, but instead struck him more times with his open hand, Ciesielski said.

Those representing Johnson’s family had a different version of events. Wagner, the family attorney, said Johnson asked officers why they were handcuffing his brother and was told to go get an adult. He said Johnson did so, and when he questioned police again one of the officers began striking him.

The chief said internal affairs investigators interviewed 27 witnesses, spoke with Johnson and his family, reviewed a 911 call and radio traffic and examined laptop computer messages.

Police spokeswoman Linda Jackson said she doesn’t know when the Civilian Police Merit Board next meets. She said the board has voted for and against such recommendations before.

Piland’s phone number was unlisted and he could not be reached for comment.

John Kautzman, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, said Piland was “disappointed” by the chief’s recommendation and believed the matter was still unresolved.

“This is merely a recommendation by the chief of police. But that’s why the (merit board) exists: for us to have an opportunity to call witnesses and have them hear the evidence,” Kautzman said.

The union’s president, Sgt. Bill Owensby, said he thinks Piland is being scapegoated because the case has drawn public scrutiny. He said Piland and the other officers stayed within department rules and helped quell what could have become a broader disturbance.

“They had to take action swiftly and surely because there was a crowd gathering and Brandon was attempting to incite the crowd to do something,” Owensby said. “Brandon Johnson was the master of his own destiny that day.”

Several black ministers and clergy members called Thursday for a federal investigation into the arrest.

Elder Lionel Rush, a member of Concerned Clergy, said one of the officers called the biracial Johnson a “mutt” during the arrest, a claim Ciesielski said couldn’t be verified. Rush said the Justice Department should appoint a federal monitor to investigate claims of brutality by Indianapolis police.

An FBI spokesman said the bureau and the Justice Department were reviewing the case to determine whether an investigation was warranted.