Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Brutalized war protester gets day in court

The night the United States launched the invasion of Iraq -- March 19, 2003 -- a UT student went to the West Mall, the University of Texas' designated "free speech area," to write "Protest the War" on a concrete wall in removable chalk. The Statesman reported on a civil rights lawsuit, which began yesterday and continues this week, brought by the student against a UT-Austin police officer after a brutality incident.

Some police abuse cases occur when an officer must make split second decisions in a complicated situation. This one just seems sadistic and mean. Most police would never do this, hell, most people with a shred of humanity would never do this, but check out the witness description of Officer Wayne Coffey's behavior:

The police officer looked "strange" as he ran across the University of Texas West Mall that night last year, "like he was tiptoeing" or "sneaking up on someone," UT student Matthew Perry testified at the start of a civil rights trial in federal court on Monday.

Perry said he halted his cell phone conversation to watch the officer, who was heading toward a student writing in chalk on a short cement wall outside the Texas Union.

After initially slowing down, the officer gathered a full head of steam and ran at the student, extended his right hand and smashed the student's face against the cement wall, Perry testified.

The student, who was facing the wall the entire time, never saw it coming, Perry told a jury convened before U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks. Perry was the first witness in a civil trial pitting Jonathan Bougie — the student who was chalking the wall that night — against UT police officer Wayne Coffey. ...

That's simply mean-spirited and childish, the kind of stunt a high school bully pulls, not a trained law enforcement professional.

Bougie's attorney, Wayne Krause of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in his opening statement that Coffey failed to identify himself as a police officer before pushing Bougie into the wall, "breaking his glasses, leaving Dr. Bougie bloody and having to go to the emergency room.

Coffey's attorney didn't dispute the witness testimony, but merely argued his actions were justified.

Coffey's attorney, Assistant Attorney General Richard Salisbury, said the officer's actions were "reasonable under the circumstances."

Coffey didn't know if Bougie had a weapon, and his first priority was to ensure his own safety, Salisbury said.

The decision to not immediately identify himself as a police officer was "a judgment call,"

That's some judgment call. If Bougie was chalking the wall, his hands were visible, or at least the hand that he would have used to wield any weapon. Sneaking up from behind like that, the officer was in no danger. To use the phrase from the westerns, Officer Coffey "had the drop" on the student chalker, and could have easily taken him into custody.

UT not only didn't fire him, the state is providing his attorneys. Coffey's actions would be reprehensible aimed at a homeless person or a shoplifter. To exercise that level of force on a Class C misdemeanor (a fine-only offense), much less to stop a peaceful political protest, then to have state of Texas' lawyers argue it was "reasonable," is especially troubling.

I doubt Coffey was making a political statement, though, on his own behalf or the university's, and certainly nobody trained him in his smash-the-suspect's-face-into-the-wall technique, though the state has now argued the behavior was "reasonable." An ex-Arena-league football player, it sounds instead like Coffey just enjoys violence too much and probably should never have become a police officer in the first place.


UTWatch summarized the case right after it happened here, Debbie Russell informs me in an email. Sarah points to these pictures, and the same story at Indymedia. Thanks for the links!

1 comment:

Sarah said...

I'm glad to hear this actually went to trial. There's still an old Austin Indymedia story online (http://austin.buffaloimc.org:8080/newswire/display/11535/index.php) as well as pictures from shortly after the assault (http://www.ccpj.org/pictures/?cid=8) on the Campus Coalition for Peace and Justice website.