The Police Merit Board deliberated for just under two hours before casting a 6-1 vote to clear Jerry Piland of wrongdoing.Touhy explained Piland's testimony in his defense in an earlier report:
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 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.”
Ciesielski had recommended Piland's firing after an internal affairs investigation determined that he struck Johnson several times when he was already subdued. Ciesielski said it was the worst beating he'd seen in his 24 years as a police officer. But Piland's attorney, John Kautzman, provided a bevy of experts and witnesses who said Johnson struggled with officers all the way up until he was handcuffed, and then some, and the punches followed police regulations.
Officer Jerry Piland said he arrived at Brandon Johnson's Eastside neighborhood to see other officers struggling to subdue the youth, who had been protesting his brother's arrest. Piland tried to push Brandon down on the ground, on his belly, and away from another officer's leg.
"It didn't work," Piland said. "He didn't budge."
That's when Piland decided more force was necessary.
"I've got to give him something that's going to change his channel, so to speak," Piland said. "I gave him two knee strikes to his right shoulder blade."
He insisted he did not strike the youth's head with his knee.
"They (the knee strikes) were to accomplish a task, and that was to get him to roll over," he said.
Even if he had struck Brandon's head, Piland said, "it would have been completely justified."
I'm told by people who heard the testimony that Piland's attorney totally out-lawyered the city's attorney in the case with his effective use of witnesses to prove Piland was actually not the police officer who inflicted the injuries on Johnson that were so visible following the incident. That is why this decision is so damaging to IMPD's leadership and the Ballard administration. It appears there was an attempt to scape goat Piland in the incident simply to appease the African-American community regardless of his guilt or innocence. As Tuohy explains:
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." . . .
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."
The decision raises questions about why Carney was not disciplined, even if the merit board cleared Piland of using excessive force. Recall that Officer Piland was off duty at the time of the incident and came to the aid of his fellow officers. A large group of people had gathered as police attempted to apprehend Johnson's younger brother when he rushed in and interfered with that arrest. IMPD foolishly dropped the home invasion charges against Johnson's younger brother under pressure from the African-American community despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt. Indianapolis residents have been plagued by home invasions this year, particularly during the summer months while teen-agers were on summer break.
The timing of this decision could not be worse for the Ballard administration. Public Safety Director Frank Straub is under fire for sitting on a report completed into the investigation of IMPD's handling of the fatal DUI collision involving K-9 Officer David Bisard. Critics in the police department complain Straub is trying to alter the report's contents to remove findings that are damaging to him and Chief Ciesielski. The two summoned two other high-ranking officers to return to IMPD headquarters from the accident scene to discuss a press conference Ciesielski planned to hold later that afternoon as a show of support for Straub. Those two officers were later demoted for failing to take charge of the accident scene. The head of the fatal DUI unit was also removed from his position even though he was not even asked to come to the accident scene and investigate. Responding police officers claimed they saw no sign of Bisard's intoxication.