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$525,000 Settlement in Minnesota Jail Excessive Force Incident

by Jayson Hawkins

"Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me.”

Terrell Isaiah Wilson, 24, could be heard pleading for his life on video footage shot on April 13, 2016 at the Ramsey County jail in St, Paul, Minnesota. After being arrested for the theft of two cell phones, Wilson was taken to the facility for booking. The arresting officers called ahead to report they had had trouble getting him into the patrol car, and that he had already been doused with pepper spray.

Jailers were waiting to assist in removing Wilson from the vehicle. Deputy Travis VanDeWiele opened the car door and told Wilson to disembark. He fell when getting out, and again after being lifted to his feet. Deputies then propped Wilson on a transport chair and threatened to use pain compliance if he did not cooperate.

The 13-minute video, which was made public in mid-2019, showed VanDeWiele push against a pressure point on Wilson’s jaw, forcing him upward while at the same time ordering him to sit down. When he complained, cursed and said the deputies were using excessive force, VanDeWiele reportedly replied, “You ain’t seen excessive force yet.”

“Mr. Wilson is trying to comply, but he can’t when four or five different things are being done to him,” observed Tim Williams, a use-of-force expert who was a supervisor in the Los Angeles Police Department.

VanDeWiele proceeded to knee Wilson twice and punch him four times in the abdomen, then held Wilson in a doubled-over position that put him at risk of asphyxiating. The technique, which induces a feeling of drowning, is not supposed to be used because of past fatalities.

“If we saw video like that from anywhere else in the world we’d call it torture,” stated St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. The Ramsey County Commissioners Board agreed and offered Wilson a $525,000 settlement in May 2019. [See: PLN, Nov. 2019, p.63].

“I watched the entire video and was absolutely appalled,” Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said. “We do take this seriously ... and need to do everything that we can to correct this to make sure something like this does not happen again.”

The county also resolved a criminal complaint against VanDeWiele, accepting his resignation in exchange for dropping misdemeanor assault charges. He had already pleaded guilty to another misdemeanor stemming from the incident with Wilson – disorderly conduct, which carried a $150 fine.

VanDeWiele received no administrative discipline for his actions as part of his agreement with the county, and was allowed to collect over $120,000 in wages during two years of leave. Wilson, by contrast, entered a guilty plea for felony theft of the cell phones and will be on probation for five years.

Ramsey County’s new sheriff, Bob Fletcher, has instituted several reforms to reduce unnecessary violence by his staff, including training in de-escalation skills and a “duty to intervene” when employees witness coworkers use excessive force.

In the latter regard, the sheriff said, “Equally disturbing is the fact that no one else in that video, whether it was the six correctional officers or the two police officers, were willing to step forward and put a hand on Mr. VanDeWiele and say, ‘Hold on, I’ve got it from here’ and intervene in that cycle.” 



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