Merit Board: Officer did not use excessive force
Indianapolis - The metro police officer accused of beating up a teen earlier this year will keep his job.
The decision, which goes against the recommendation of Indianapolis Metro Police Chief Paul Ciesielski, was handed down around 4:00 am Friday morning by the Civilian Merit Board.
The incident in question happened in May when police say 15-year-old Brandon Johnson tried to incite a crowd as officers were arresting his brother during a burglary investigation.
Pictures of Johnson following the arrest show a bloody face, black eye and puffy lip.
Witnesses, fellow officers, Johnson and Piland all gave testimony to the Merit Board about the incident. After listening to three days of testimony, the board came to several conclusions.
Although Johnson suffered injuries that day, the board found those injuries occurred before Officer Piland arrived to help the other officers in the arrest.
"It's often been said that a picture is worth a thousand words and that's true. But there are many words that did not go with this picture," said Jeff Oberlies, Merit Board president.
The board found Johnson's story not credible and contrary to medical evidence, including testimony of a Wishard emergency room doctor who said said Brandon Johnson's swollen face could have been the result of just a few blows.
"There's a lot of blood vessels in the face. The skin is loosely attached to the bone on the face. Any force can cause those blood vessels to break and there's a lot of room for swelling," said Dr. Daniel O'Donnell, Wishard ER.
They also found that the 6', 200-lb. teen resisted those officers and that Piland followed department training in his attempt to subdue Johnson.
The board found the injuries that Johnson suffered were not as serious as they appear in the pictures.
They deliberated for 2.5 hours and eventually voted 6-1 that Officer Piland did not use excessive force against the teen, clearing him of any wrongdoing and giving him the go-ahead to go back to work.
When the decision was announced, it was an emotional moment for Officer Piland, who dropped his head into his hands.
His attorney said Piland was happy with the decision.
"Obviously very, very pleased as we all are," said John Kautzman. "We are not going to comment anymore about it. That is going to be up to the department and getting him back to work and so forth and so on. I know he's looking forward to it."
"Do you have any idea why after they would cuff you why they would continue to beat you for nine minutes or so while you were just lying there not putting up any resistance?" Kautzman asked Johnson during the hearing.
"But that's what you're telling this board happened?"
Police Chief Paul Ciesielski disagreed with the ruling. He had recommended that Jerry Piland be fired for using excessive force.
"Of course I'm very disappointed. I think we had a good case. I think this was a case where excessive force was used and I think this is a case where we showed that Brandon Johnson did not resist to a level that would justify the force that was used against him," Chief Ciesielski said. "I want the community to know that if anything happens like this happens again I'm still going to present this to the board. This does not change my stance that excessive force won't be tolerated. I also want the community to know that I have done everything I can as chief in this case to try and terminate officer Piland."
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard also says he is not happy with the ruling.
He released a statement to Eyewitness News:
"I am dismayed and disappointed by the Merit Board's decision not to uphold the Chief's recommendation. We will continue to raise the standards and reform IMPD so that incidents like this do not happen in the future."
This case also outraged many members of the Indianapolis community. A minister following the case is disappointed with the decision.
"I was really hurt and based no the testimony that I heard for 15 hours I really see now that the police officers see themselves as a family versus part of the community. Its almost like a community versus the police officer thing going on and its like a good ol' boy system that I know definitely needs to be broke up now, " said Pastor Richard Willoughby, Promise Land Christian Community Church.
As Piland left the room, he hugged his wife and got a round of applause from his fellow officers. He thanked them for their support.
"I appreciate every single text message you have sent me in the last five months, every single thought, card, everything," Officer Piland said. "Because that is what this profession is about,is that right there, it's about us. We got to work everyday for us and that's what matters and that shows here today. We all know that everybody wanted to make this about something it wasn't, but we're here and that's what counts and I appreciate it guys. Thank you very much."
The one member of the merit board who voted to terminate Piland said the pictures of Johnson prove excessive force.
During earlier testimony Ciesielski called this the worst case of excessive force he's seen in his 24 years as a police officer. However, officers who were on the scene said teenager Brandon Johnson was acting aggressively and that Piland didn't cross the line.
"The amount of strength and power that came from this young man was shocking to me," said Officer Oliver Clouthier.
The arresting officer demonstrated how he said Brandon Johnson resisted as police tried to place him in handcuffs.
"He's still fighting with me trying to bring this arm down and if I let this handcuff go, then this turns into a weapon for him," said Clouthier.
They say he shouted expletives. He was upset his younger brother was being arrested for burglary on May 16th.
"Very loud and aggressive both in terms of his physical demeanor and as well as what he was expressing verbally. He was, for lack of a better term, amped up," said Sgt. Joshua Shaughnessy, IMPD.
So much so that it took three police officers, including Jerry Piland, to get the 6', 200-lb.15-year-old under control. Still, internal affairs investigators say Officer Piland used excessive force, striking Johnson in the head with his knee after he was in handcuffs.
"The level of force that Officer Piland was exhibiting at this point was not a 'hard empty hand,'" said Sgt. Scott Hessong, IMPD Internal Affairs. Hessong said it was "deadly force."
After reviewing the internal affairs investigation, Metro Police Chief Paul Ciesielski came to a single conclusion.
"The level of resistance that was being offered by Brandon did not justify by any means, the amount of force that was put upon him," said the chief.
"I believe that there was a point where Officer Piland clearly crossed that line," he said.