Video shows officer hit restrained demonstrator with baton — Detroit police say it doesn't

August 24, 2020, 9:49 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

Look at this video — what do you see?

We at Deadline Detroit — along with every person we’ve asked — see an officer push down the head of a demonstrator who’s already zip-tied, then strike him with a baton. The man at the center of the incident agrees he was struck, though "everything happened so fast" he couldn't initially tell by what.

But according to Detroit Police Chief James Craig, the man was never struck. 

The incident is one of several questionable uses of force captured during a demonstration in downtown Detroit Saturday, and one of at least three now under investigation by the department’s Professional Standards Section.

But Craig’s response raises questions about whether such investigations can properly identify and root out police abuse. After all, if police and the public cannot agree on what occurred when provided with visual evidence — what hope is there that the department can objectively investigate itself?

At a news conference Monday, Craig said professional standards had determined “the officer never struck that individual,” when asked by Deadline Detroit whether he’d reviewed photos and video of the various uses of force over the weekend. He took umbrage with our initial report, which stated the officer appeared to hit the man in the head.

Dictionary rewrite

On Tuesday, the man, 33-year old Detroit resident Evan Villeneuve, confirmed he was indeed hit, though in the neck and shoulder, and that he felt soreness after the incident. He said the officer came for him after he stood up to voice disapproval over the treatment of another man whose head, he said, was being grinded into the pavement by police.

Police investigators, however, disagreed with Villeneuve's assessment.

“I would not characterize that as a strike,” Chris Graveline, the head of the Professional Standards Section said in a follow-up interview Monday. “Yes, he had the baton in his hand when he put his hand on the man’s shoulders, but we would define ‘strike’ as using that baton in some way to affect the force. I don’t believe it was the tool of the force there.”

The definition of “strike” is “to hit forcibly and deliberately.” In the video, the officer appears to push the restrained man down with his right hand, then swing a baton over the man’s upper body with his left.

Graveline conceded that "Generally speaking, just for one of our officers to go up to a person who’s in zip ties and push them on the ground — no that would not be OK," but added the section would have to look at what happened in the lead-up.

View from different eyes

“They’re in la-la land,” longtime civil rights attorney and former Detroit police officer David Robinson said when asked for his assessment of the video. “It looks like he’s swinging the baton and hits him.”

The hand on the demonstrator’s head is also a use of force — and a likely excessive one at that, Robinson said, because the demonstrator was restrained and being held by another officer. Even tapping a demonstrator with a baton is a use of force, he explained, because the baton is technically a weapon.

“It has to be excessive almost by default because the man has been detained already and he’s got the zip ties on him and the only thing that that guy can do is run his mouth.”

Body camera footage from Saturday showed several officers approach the area where the man was roughed up in “response to some sort of commotion,” Graveline said. He declined to voluntarily provide that video. 

But focusing on the disinformation, and the baton strike itself, misses the point, Robinson says. The larger issue, he argues, is that the unit tasked with investigating officer misconduct has difficulty seeing things objectively.

“It’s an implicit bias,” he said. “It’s what I call blue sympathy. They look at a set of facts but they’re looking at it with a blue hue.”

Chief has 'a lot of confidence'

Craig did not respond to a Deadline Detroit question about the outcome of at least two dozen professional standards investigations launched after an initial wave of clashes with between police and demonstrators in May. One officer has been criminally charged for shooting three photojournalists with rubber bullets.

Asked earlier Monday whether the public should have faith in professional standards investigations, Craig said “absolutely.”

“I have a lot of confidence in what professional standards' work involves; we talk constantly,” he said. “Director Graveline is a former U.S. Attorney who did not ‘grow up’ in this agency, so in many instances he takes an independent view of the world.”

Graveline is a civilian who was the lead military prosecutor of human rights violations by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He also ran unsuccessfully as an Independent for Michigan attorney general in 2018.

Demonstrators who've gathered nightly since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have alleged Saturday's gathering was particularly violent. This time the clashes began when they refused orders to clear a portion of Woodward downtown.

"I think I was actually treated better than a lot of people that I saw, so I feel lucky that I didn’t get a collapsed lung or a broken rib or two black eyes," said Villeneuve. "I mean I saw so much abuse that I wasn’t even really concerned with my own safety."

The investigations into the incidents will rely on officer accounts and body camera videos, if available, Graveline said. Individuals roughed up by police will be questioned if investigators can reach them, he said. The practice is for investigators to call and, if unsuccessful, visit an address connected to the person and leave a note or business card if they’re not there.

Villeneuve, who supplied a phone number and current address when he was detained, said he had not been contacted by the department as of early Tuesday afternoon.

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