KARE 11 Investigates: Police abuse cover up?
CLOUMBIA HEIGHTS, Minn. – A retired Minnesota police officer claims his department covered up a case of police misconduct that left a man with a traumatic brain injury.
The alleged abuse case involves a Columbia Heights police officer who is the department’s use of force Instructor. Now he’s the subject of a federal lawsuit.
“I woke up in the hospital,” says Brandon Skinner, the man now suing Columbia Heights. “I suffered from a traumatic brain injury.”
The injury is the result of multiple skull fractures received during a run-in with Columbia Heights police on August 2, 2011.
Brandon Skinner has a criminal record due in large part to addictions. He says he’s clean and sober now, going to school to be an addiction counselor.
On the night in question, he says he’s embarrassed by his drunken behavior. “It changed my life forever,” he says.
So what happened? It depends on whose version of events you believe.
If you read the official Columbia Heights police version, Sgt. Matt Markham saw two men “fighting” in a yard. “Good friends” just “wrestling around,” one of them said.
Everyone went into the house and Sgt. Markham and other officers followed. A police body mic captured a clearly intoxicated Brandon Skinner yelling and swearing. Sgt. Markham can also be heard screaming.
Sgt. Markham’s official report states that Brandon “whipped an open bottle of Dr. Pepper soda at me.”
Former Officer Ron Dietz says he was standing right behind Brandon at the time.
“I don’t recall soda being thrown,” Dietz told KARE 11. “I recall soda being opened as if it was shaken up.”
A small discrepancy, but a hint of bigger ones to come.
When Sgt. Markham ordered Brandon Skinner arrested, Officer Dietz handcuffed him, and Sgt. Markham and another officer lead him outside.
“He wasn’t trying to resist,” Dietz remembered. “He wasn’t trying to do anything. The only thing I witnessed him doing was yelling and screaming and swearing.”
KARE 11 obtained police dash cam video of the incident, but condensation on squad car windows blocked the view of what happened next.
The accounts of what happened during those hidden moments are dramatically different. What is indisputable is Brandon Skinner ended up lying in a quickly spreading pool of blood, his skull fractured.
Sgt. Markham’s report claims that in a moment when he was the only officer with Skinner, the handcuffed man “started squeezing and bending” Markham’s fingers. That’s when Markham claims he tried to “put him on the ground” … that Skinner “lost his balance” … “hit the street”… and was “knocked out.”
But Officer Dietz says Sgt. Markham’s official report left something out.
“Do you believe this incident was covered up, swept under the rug?” asked KARE 11’s A. J. Lagoe.
“Absolutely,” said Dietz.
KARE 11 obtained an audio recording from the Columbia Heights police Internal Affairs investigation launched after Brandon filed a complaint against Sgt. Markham.
In it, Capt. Lenny Austin can be heard interviewing Officer Dietz about what he witnessed.
Austin: “Was Brandon actively resisting?”
Dietz: “From what I seen, I would view it more as he was trying to prevent himself from continuously getting his head smashed into the trunk.”
Officer Dietz claims he saw Sgt. Markham, the man who’s supposed to train other officers on the proper use of force, repeatedly hitting Brandon Skinner’s head against the police squad car.
“He had his hand on the back of his neck where his thumb would be below one ear and his finger would be below the other ear and he was actually slamming his head down into the trunk of the car,” Dietz told KARE 11.
The cameras don’t show it clearly, but you can hear what sounds like an altercation as Sgt. Markham tells Brandon Skinner to stop swearing.
“Are you done? Huh, are you done? Time to shut your mouth.”
KARE 11 asked Officer Dietz to review the tapes with us.
A. J. Lagoe: “What’s going on there?
Officer Dietz: “That’s when Sgt. Markham was smacking his head down into the trunk of the car.”
Officer Dietz gave the same account when he was questioned by Capt. Austin during the Internal Affairs investigation:
Austin: “How many times did he hit Brandon’s head on the trunk of the car?”
Dietz: “Enough to make me uncomfortable.”
Austin: “Do you think that was excessive?”
So, why didn’t Dietz intervene? That’s the question KARE 11 put to him.
A. J. Lagoe: “If you felt you were witnessing excessive force, why didn’t you step in and stop it?”
Dietz: “You know, Markham is my sergeant, my senior officer. My superior officer. He’s ultimately in charge of the entire city that night.”
Rather than watch, Dietz says he made up an excuse and left. But he only made it a few blocks before he was radioed back to the scene.
“This is what I rolled up on,” he told KARE 11 as he watched the video from his own squad car’s dash camera. “You see the victim laying down in a pool of blood. Agonal breathing.”
In his lawsuit, Brandon Skinner claims that while he was still handcuffed with his hands behind his back, Sgt. Markham had picked him up and body slammed him – head first – into the street.
Sgt. Markham’s body microphone should have picked up the sounds of that critical moment. But it was not on. Neither were any of the microphones worn by the other officers still on scene. That’s in spite of a written Columbia Heights police policy that says officers are encouraged to activate their mics when dealing with the public.
Records show the Internal Affairs investigation cleared Sgt. Markham. “No disciplinary action taken,” reads the summary.
That’s despite what Officer Dietz told Capt. Austin he’d witnessed minutes before Brandon Skinner hit the ground.
Austin: “Did you seen Brandon’s head hit the trunk?”
A skeptical Capt. Austin repeatedly asked Dietz if he’s sure of what he saw.
Austin: “I just want to make sure that that is your statement that this is what occurred. That Sgt. Markham smashed Brandon’s head into the trunk of the car?”
Dietz: “That is my statement.”
The Internal Affairs interview ended with this warning:
Austin: “I just want to make sure that we’re clear, you’re not to talk to anyone else about this matter.”
And Officer Dietz, who retired from the Columbia Heights Police Department in 2014, hasn’t spoken about it – until he sat down with KARE 11.
“I think that I owe it to the victim in this case that I come in and talk to you and tell you exactly what I seen take place,” he told us.
As part of our investigation, we asked Columbia Heights for the reports filed by all the officers at the scene that night.
Guess whose report was missing?
The one from Ron Dietz, the officer whose story casts doubt on the official version of events.
“I’m 99.9% sure that I did write a report,” Dietz told us. “It went to an internal investigation. They would’ve wanted to have every officer’s account of what happened that night in writing.”
Since Brandon Skinner didn’t know there was a police officer who challenged Sgt. Markham’s story, when his case went to court he entered a guilty plea to misdemeanor obstruction of the legal process and served 90 days in the Anoka County jail.
Ron Dietz says he thinks the wrong man was put behind bars.
A. J. Lagoe: “You think the police officer, Sgt. Markham, should have been arrested?”
Dietz: “Absolutely. I should’ve stayed there. I should’ve arrested Markham for assault.”
A. J. Lagoe: “You believe Brandon Skinner was assaulted?”
Dietz: “I absolutely believe Brandon Skinner was assaulted with no justifiable reason whatsoever.”
Skinner and his lawyer recently filed a federal lawsuit claiming civil rights violations. The suit mirrors many of the allegations made by Officer Dietz and asks for damages.
“It’s a struggle every single day of my life because of what happened that night,” Skinner says.
KARE 11 requested interviews with Sgt. Matt Markham, Columbia Heights Police Chief Scott Nadeau and other officers who were there that night. They declined citing the lawsuit they’re now facing. But on the department Facebook page, they addressed the lawsuit, writing that the “incident was thoroughly investigated” and they disagree with the allegations.