Fired Minneapolis cop, now with St. Paul, accused of excessive force again
A former Minneapolis police officer, the subject of a lawsuit in the 1990s that the city settled for $500,000, is now a St. Paul police sergeant and again accused of excessive force.
A 32-year-old man alleges in a federal lawsuit that he was left with a broken jaw and fractured vertebrae after an encounter with St. Paul officers Paul Cottingham and Craig Rhode.
The St. Paul City Council will meet in a special closed-door session March 27 to discuss the case. A settlement conference before a U.S. magistrate judge is slated for April 4.
Minneapolis police fired Cottingham in 1995 for two cases unrelated to the one that led to the large settlement, according to news articles from the time.
Tyrone Terrill, the African-American Leadership Council chairman, said he is concerned about how St. Paul police could have hired Cottingham, given his background.
“It’s mind-boggling to me,” Terrill said.
St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla said Wednesday, March 13, that he had no specific information about Cottingham’s hiring. “I have no reason to doubt that we followed our standard hiring procedures,” he said.
James Lavance Newbill, who since has legally changed his name to Ras Yirehmiel Tafari for spiritual reasons, filed the current lawsuit in August.
Police said they saw what they suspected was a drug deal about to happen in August 2010 near a church behind the state Capitol. A car’s passenger admitted to officers he intended to conduct a drug deal with
Tafari, stated a criminal complaint against Tafari. Marijuana later was found in Tafari’s bag.
Tafari suddenly ran, the complaint said.
The lawsuit’s complaint said officer Rhode and another officer “rushed at (Tafari) without giving any commands or instructions.” Tafari feared for his safety and ran up the church’s stairs. Rhode and Cottingham chased him.
As Tafari put his hands up to surrender, “officer Cottingham tasered (Tafari) without warning. … (Tafari) crumpled onto the steps, and as he hit the concrete, officer Rhode smashed his boot into (Tafari’s) face, knocking him out immediately,” the complaint said.
Tafari was taken to Regions Hospital. His broken jaw was wired shut for nearly three months, he wore a neck brace for nearly four months and his “mouth was split open horizontally,” the complaint said, adding that he needed oral surgery. He had cuts and bruises to his head, neck and upper body, the complaint said.
Tafari pleaded guilty to possession of a small amount of marijuana, a petty misdemeanor. A misdemeanor charge of fleeing police was dismissed.
“This was a low-level offense, he was completely complying, he was surrendering, and they used deadly force on him,” said attorney Paul Applebaum, who is representing Tafari.
The lawsuit seeks $1 million. Andrew Irlbeck, another of Tafari’s attorneys, said he’s hopeful a settlement will be reached.
Officers Cottingham and Rhode declined to comment through Padilla.
The city denied allegations about the use of deadly force in its answer to the lawsuit. City Attorney Sara Grewing said Wednesday she had no comment.
Rhode has been a St. Paul police officer since 1997, and Cottingham since 2006. Rhode was last disciplined in 2003, when he was suspended for three days for violating department policy. Cottingham’s only discipline was in 2006, an oral reprimand for a preventable accident. Rhode has 18 commendations or thank-you letters in his personnel file, and Cottingham has 11.
St. Paul’s personnel records show Cottingham had worked for the Leech Lake tribal police force between his stints in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The 1996 Minneapolis settlement for $500,000 involving Cottingham was the largest out-of-court settlement in a police brutality suit in the city at the time. It came after a 1990 high-speed chase that ended with Cottingham and another officer severely beating the suspect, according to that lawsuit.
It was the third civil suit the city of Minneapolis faced stemming from Cottingham’s actions. One led to an $87,500 judgment against the city, and the other resulted in a jury’s verdict that Cottingham had not acted improperly when he shot a suspect.