An Alabama police officer has been indicted by a federal grand jury, accused of using unreasonable force against an unarmed Indian man during an episode in which the officer slammed the man to the ground while he was on an early-morning stroll through his family’s suburban neighborhood.
The confrontation on Feb. 6, which led to the partial paralysis of the man, Sureshbhai Patel, 57, has exported the US’ national debate over the use of force by police officers as observers and news media in India expressed outrage over Patel’s treatment.
It has also been an embarrassment for Alabama. Eleven days after the encounter, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley wrote the Indian consul general in Atlanta, expressing “deep regret” for the “unfortunate use of excessive force by the Madison Police Department.”
On Friday, the US Department of Justice announced that the officer, Eric Parker, 26, had been indicted late on Thursday. The two-page indictment alleges that Parker, in slamming Patel to the ground, deprived him of his constitutional right “to be free from unreasonable seizures, which includes the right to be free from the use of unreasonable force by one acting under color of law.”
Patel, a visitor from the Indian state of Gujarat who speaks limited English, is identified in the indictment by his initials, “S.P.” He was walking on a residential street shortly before 9am on Feb. 6 in the northern Alabama city of Madison when a resident called 911 and reported that “a skinny black guy” was “just kind of wandering around.”
“I’d like somebody to talk to him,” the caller said, according to a recording of the 911 call.
Patel had come to Madison, a suburb of Huntsville, to stay with his son’s family and help care for his grandson, a toddler who was having developmental difficulties, family lawyer Hank Sherrod said. He added that Patel was walking around his son’s neighborhood that morning for exercise.
A video taken from inside a squad car showed Parker and his trainee, Andrew Slaughter, arriving on Hardiman Place Lane, a street lined with modest homes with wide lawns, and confronting Patel on the sidewalk.
“Hey bud, let me talk to you real quick. Come here,” one officer said.
It is apparent from the video that Patel was able to tell the officers he was from India, and tell them he was not carrying identification. However, when an officer asks Patel where he is going, the communication falters.
“I can’t understand you, sir,” one officer said, adding, “Do you live here, do you live in this neighborhood?”
What happens next is difficult to discern from the footage. However, an officer warns Patel not to walk away or “jerk away” from him again; if he was to do so, the officer said, “I’m going to put you on this ground.”
Video from a second squad car shows one officer slamming Patel onto the ground and straddling his body once he is facedown.
“He don’t speak a lick of English,” the officer can be heard saying.
A statement issued by the Madison City Police Department said Patel “began putting his hands in his pockets,” when the officers arrived, and that he “attempted to pull away” when the officers tried to pat him down.
A subsequent department statement said the confrontation had been reviewed by its Office of Professional Standards, which concluded that the actions of Parker “did not meet the high standards and expectations of the Madison City Police Department.” The statement included an apology to Patel’s family.
Parker was arrested and charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, and has pleaded not guilty. Major Jim Cooke of the Madison police said on Friday that the department had taken steps to terminate Parker, and that he had appealed his termination and is on paid leave pending the appeal. No action has been taken against Slaughter, the trainee, Cooke said.
Sherrod said Patel’s spine was damaged, causing paralysis in his arms and legs. After a cervical fusion operation and weeks of therapy, Sherrod said, Patel has regained some use of his limbs, and recently walked a short distance with the aid of a walker.
Patel has filed a lawsuit in US District Court against Parker and the city of Madison, seeking unspecified damages and claiming that Parker’s actions were “either negligent, wanton, malicious, willful or in bad faith.”
“Mr Patel and his family are very pleased by the prompt and decisive action of US Attorney Joyce Vance and the federal grand jury,” Sherrod said in a statement on Friday. “For the public to trust police officers, it needs to know officers will be held accountable, and the felony civil rights charges filed against Parker, unlike the misdemeanor assault charge being pursued in state court, more accurately reflect the seriousness of Parker’s conduct.”
Robert Tuten, a lawyer representing Parker, on Friday said that he expected him to plead not guilty to the federal charge.
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