Community leaders, county board condemn corrections officer's use of excessive force

A day after the Fox 9 Investigators broke the story of excessive force used by a corrections officer on an inmate in the Ramsey County Jail in 2016, there is massive political fallout.

A 13-minute video of the incident, obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators, shows officer Travis Vanderwiele and five others fighting to strap a handcuffed suspect into a transport chair. Vanderwiele is seen kneeing and punching 24-year-old Terrell Wilson.

CHANGES IN JAIL PROCEDURES

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who was not the Sheriff at the time of the incident, held a joint news conference with community leaders on Tuesday afternoon. 

He is implementing seven policy changes aimed at changing the culture of the jail: 

* A duty to intervene; if other corrections officers see excessive force, they are under an obligation to stop and report it.
*Civilian ombudsmen; civilians observing what is occurring in the booking area of the jail.
*Dual path investigations; a criminal investigation and an internal affairs investigation can be conducted at the same time to avoid long periods of multiple investigations.
*Staff assignment changes; Staff who have demonstrated exceptional de-escalation skills, communication and cultural competence will be assigned to the booking area.
*Training; new training curriculum for staff
*Video technology; camera upgrades in booking area.
*Complaint monitoring; creation of a tracking system for the use of force incidents.

When asked about what looked like cross purposes (corrections officers simultaneously pushing Wilson out of the chair and trying to get him to sit back at the same time) the Sheriff agreed that is what was happening.

“We actually watched the video the day before your expose and all of our experts on use of force and all our training people all agreed those were counterproductive,” Fletcher said.  “Equally disturbing that no one in that video - six correction officers or two police officers - put a hand on him (Vanderwiele) and said, 'we got it from here.'”

“Seeing those pictures, those punches, those kicks, that treatment, the torture - if we saw video like that arise from anywhere else in the world we would call that torture,” said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. 

“No human being should be treated in that manner,” said Tyrone Terrell from African American Leadership Council.

COUNTY BOARD MEMBERS HORRIFIED

At their board meeting on Tuesday, the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners condemned the use of excessive force.

“These actions are grossly contrary to the expectations of Ramsey County employees and offend us and the communities we are here to serve,” Board Chair Jim McDonough said.

Commissioner Trista Matascastillo became teary-eyed as she talked about the incident.

“And I am emotional with our community because this is not okay,” she said.

The commissioners seemed most concerned about the lack of action by the other corrections officers in the video, who saw what was happening and didn’t stop the abuse. 

“This won’t change no matter how much supervision and training we get until good people step up and speak up,” McDonough said. 

The commissioners also appeared disturbed by the racial connotations of the incident. 

“It is also important to acknowledge the racial dynamics associated with this incident,” McDonough said.

“A white officer acting upon a black male with a group of predominantly white officers present is alarming and raises questions about systemic issues in our criminal justice system and beyond.” 

In a statement, McDonough said the board will “continue seeking regular opportunities to engage with the sheriff and county attorney to reform our criminal justice system.” 

“There is a strand of vicious, Jim Crow-like culture that exists into this very day,” Commissioner Toni Carter added. 

Vanderwiele has been on paid administrative leave from the sheriff’s office for the last two years. He recently reached a settlement agreement that will lead to his formal resignation, effective Feb. 28.

On Tuesday, Vandewiele also resigned his position as a wrestling coach at East Ridge High School in Woodbury.  

Full statement from the Ramsey County Board Chair