UPDATE: Police report finds complaints against school officer unfounded

Thursday, December 4, 2008 | 7:51 p.m. CST; updated 8:31 a.m. CST, Friday, December 5, 2008

COLUMBIA — Three complaints against Columbia police Student Resource Officer Mark Brotemarkle in connection with a fight he broke up at Hickman High School were ruled unfounded in a Professional Standards Unit report released by the Police Department on Thursday. The report was met with mixed emotions by the community.

Demetria Stephens, the mother of a Hickman High School student who filed one of the complaints, said she was “not too pleased, but not surprised,” by the results. “I wish we could get someone from outside to investigate, instead of in-house,” she said. “You’ll always get the same results that way.”

Rex Campbell, chairman of the citizen committee that recommended a review board to the City Council, said he could "technically" understand Brotemarkle's means of breaking up the fight, but he said he’s been contacted in the past year by many people who are upset about what they deemed officers' discourtesy, rudeness and excessive use of force.

Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, said that she hadn’t had a chance to read the report yet. “There would be Hickman administrators and teachers who would be very upset if Officer Brotemarkle was removed,” she said, “but we don’t get to make that choice. [He] has served us well.”

In the first complaint, Brotemarkle was accused of using excessive force when he removed Hickman student Diamond Thrower, 16, from the Oct. 15 fight. The complaint was filed by Thrower's mother, Sheila Johnson, and Thrower's mentor, Ray Magruder.

The second complaint stated Brotemarkle pushed a female student and dragged her to the office. The complaint was made by the student's mother, Deonna Ramey. It was later determined the student wasn't involved in the fight.

The third complaint, filed by Hickman parent Demetria Stephens, stated Brotemarkle demonstrated an intimidating demeanor toward Stephens in the hallway outside the principal's office. That complaint was also deemed to be unfounded.

Though he had not read the report Thursday morning, Magruder said he was "surprised but not surprised" by the results of the investigation.

"Most people anticipated the outcome before it was completed," he said.

"I fully expect some community disagreement with some or all of the findings made in this report," Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner stated in the report.

But he emphasized the effort that was being made to be more transparent.

"The conclusions are available to the public to an extent not before possible," he said. "This level of commitment to transparency is part of a larger good-faith effort to build public trust."

Campbell said Dresner has been more open with the public than the police department has been in the past. “He’s starting to do some things that we’ve been talking about,” he said. “He’s doing a very good job.”

The controversy over Brotemarkle's actions began after a student, who recorded the fight, posted the video on YouTube. It showed Brotemarkle "spinning" Thrower to the ground.

But Lt. John White stated in the report that the spin move constitutes "the lowest physical level of (the department's) force continuum to separate Diamond Thrower from the physical disturbance" and that Brotemarkle "used the appropriate amount of force necessary in this situation."

Stephens disagreed. “That video (does not show) a spin,” she said. “He slammed her down.”

Brotemarkle could have used a baton or struck Thrower and been within department policy, White wrote in the report.

In earlier interviews, Magruder said Thrower was trying to end the fight between the two students and was not personally involved. Thrower was never arrested, and the Professional Standards Unit was unable to interview her because she could not be reached through her lawyer or her mother after several attempts, White stated in the report.

According to the report, the female student in the second complaint refused to move after being asked twice, and Brotemarkle escorted the student to the office at the request of Hickman Assistant Principal Denise Herndon. Those investigating the incident determined by watching school surveillance tapes that Brotemarkle escorted the student by the back of the elbow without any sign of struggle.

Ramey wrote that Brotemarkle pushed her daughter in the chest, while her daughter claimed that Brotemarkle pushed her in the back.

"She had two chances to comply with a lawful police directive before being touched, yet she chose not to obey. A push would have been appropriate escalation," Dresner writes in the report.

The third complaint accused Brotemarkle of showing an intimidating demeanor toward a parent. Stephens said she was in the north principal's office when she heard Brotemarkle confront her daughter in the hallway. Stephens left the office to tell Brotemarkle that her daughter was not involved when Brotemarkle approached her "in an intimidating manner, getting withing three inches of her face," the complaint stated.

The investigation determined that Stephens left the office before Brotemarkle and therefore could not have heard Brotemarkle confronting her daughter.

Dresner said the investigation was completed during Thanksgiving week. He met with Jim Ritter, interim superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, and Wanda Brown, assistant superintendent for secondary education, on Wednesday morning to notify them of the completed investigation. Johnson, Ramey and Stephens were sent letters about the investigation findings earlier this week. Dresner said Johnson and Ramey were telephoned with the results of the investigation.

In an interview Thursday morning, Dresner said that personnel matters are normally closed records and emphasized that the police are trying to be more open with the public.

"We're trying to give the public more information than we ever have before," he said.

Stephens said she is not satisfied with the result of the investigation and expects further action to be taken.

“We’re not done," she said. "We’re not for this. We may be sitting down right now, but we’re not for excessive force with our kids.”

In the report, Dresner stated that the school's rules on fights "are concrete and unambiguous." Students are not to engage in or intervene in any fights, so they don't face the decision of whether to get involved.

Dresner stated he has observed a flawed notion in the community that an officer always has a peaceful option in any confrontation and that the failure to choose this option is "a lamentable shortcoming" on the part of the police. He wrote that similar scrutiny is rarely applied to the decisions made by a "combative citizen in that same confrontation."

"Plainly stated, force is not pretty," Dresner writes. "Justified force can be as shocking to the senses as unjustified force."

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