A cop pulled them over for a minor infraction, then the encounter took a bizarre turn

The story of one Minnesota couple’s ongoing problems with police provides a pointed example of the systematic overpolicing of rural communities across the country. In this episode of the Police Accountability Report, hosts Taya Graham and Stephen Janis describe the couple’s most recent encounter with cops, then they provide updates on a number of previous investigations into police overreach that they are committed to following.

Pre-Production/Studio: Stephen Janis
Post-Production: Adam Coley


Transcript

Taya Graham:        Hello. My name is Taya Graham, and I’m the host of the Police Accountability Report. I’m here with my co-host Stephen Janis, and we have a breaking news update for you. So we want you to know that we don’t leave any story behind, that we don’t just abandon people after we interview them, that we continue to follow up and try to get them answers, and if possible, police accountability. Part of this ongoing saga is the story of Wendy Acker and William Lagering. This Minnesota couple was arrested inside their own home in 2020. Stephen’s going to tell you a little bit about what you’re seeing while you watch the video with us.

Stephen Janis:    Yeah, they had been harassed by a man in town who they had gotten a restraining order against, and they had called police for help. And instead of helping them, they broke down their door and arrested both Bill and Wendy.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS].

Officer 1:        Get on the ground! Get on the ground!

Officer 2:        I got taser. I got taser.

Officer 1:        Get on the ground. [crosstalk].

William Lagering:    Oh, goddamn it! [crosstalk][shouting].

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Stephen Janis:    Put them in a huge, protracted legal ordeal, which is what we see quite often in rural policing. This was really just the beginning of the problems for them, as we can see. The update we have is this video that you’re going to talk about.

Taya Graham:        Right Stephen. Since our story aired, Bill and Wendy have had another troubling encounter with police, this time with the deputy sheriff of Todd County in Minnesota. Now, I’m going to show you the video, but I want you to pay attention to something that really stood out to me. This deputy sheriff says, “you can talk your way into a ticket”. I find that very interesting. Take a listen.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Officer 3:        You have license, proof of insurance with you?

William Lagering:    Yeah.

Officer 3:        You know why I stopped you, sir?

William Lagering:    No.

Officer 3:        No seatbelt.

William Lagering:    Are you sure? [crosstalk] Got my seatbelt on.

Officer 3:        Positive. I watched you put it on coming around the corner as soon as I stopped you, right? You didn’t have it on. It’s all on squad camera. I narrated it.

William Lagering:    Do we have insurance?

Officer 3:        What kind of dog is that? [dog panting] Nobody wants to talk to me or what?

William Lagering:    I don’t have to answer your questions.

Officer 3:        All right.

William Lagering:    I’m trying to give you my insurance.

Officer 3:        I could write you a ticket too. That’s fine.

William Lagering:    No, I’m not trying to be defiant. You were going to write me a ticket anyways. You just said that.

Officer 3:        No, I wasn’t. I never said I was writing you a ticket [crosstalk].

William Lagering:    You said you pulled me over for a seat belt. So you were going to give me a warning is what you were saying?

Officer 3:        Absolutely.

William Lagering:    And because I wouldn’t tell you what kind of dog I had, now you’re going to give me a ticket?

Officer 3:        Nope. I can give you a ticket if that’s what you want. Nobody wants to talk to me or answer a question –

William Lagering:    [crosstalk] No, sir. I don’t want a ticket.

Officer 3:        So nobody’s cooperating, therefore –

William Lagering:    Well, how are we not cooperating? You asked for license and insurance.

Officer 3:        Simply trying to be a decent person.

William Lagering:    So am I.

Officer 3:        Last five cars that I’ve stopped have gotten warnings.

William Lagering:    Well, and I’m the unlucky one?

Officer 3:        …Uncooperative – What’s that? [crosstalk].

Wendy Acker:        [inaudible]

William Lagering:    I’m the unlucky one, then.

Officer 3:        Nope. You’re getting a warning too, as long as life is good.

William Lagering:    I hope so.

Officer 3:        Okay. But when people disrespect me, I don’t appreciate that.

William Lagering:    I don’t understand how I was disrespectful to you.

Wendy Acker:        [crosstalk] Didn’t think we were.

William Lagering:    I did not mean to be disrespectful. That’s the main thing.

Officer 3:        [crosstalk] I appreciate that. That’s fine. Maybe I misunderstood.

William Lagering:    Maybe I did too.

Officer 3:        Absolutely. All right. My man. See? Just like that. No ticket.

William Lagering:    Thank you so much.

Officer 3:        Absolutely. Yeah. Maybe we got off on the wrong foot. I don’t know.

William Lagering:    I don’t know.

Officer 3:        But nobody answers me. I’m like, well, all right. I can be like that too. I respect everybody that respects me. When I ask a question, nobody answers me, it seems to me that nobody’s respecting me, right?

William Lagering:    Okay.

Officer 3:        I mean, like I said, maybe you guys had a bad run in with the cops before. I don’t know. I see you recording me. That’s fine.

William Lagering:    It could be a possibility.

Officer 3:        So I get that there are bad apples in every profession. But in today’s world especially, we don’t get a lot of respect anymore, and it’s slightly irritating. So nobody respects us. Then I guess we’re going to treat you guys the way you treat us.

William Lagering:    [crosstalk] Likewise, I haven’t been getting much respect from law enforcement lately either and so I appreciate your professionalism.

Officer 3:        Absolutely. Yeah. So not a big deal.

Wendy Acker:        We wouldn’t treat people the way they treat us, so.

Officer 3:        Absolutely.

Wendy Acker:        Thank you.

Officer 3:        I don’t disagree with that one bit. I’ve been taught that since I was knee high to a grasshopper in kindergarten, treat others the way you want to be treated.

William Lagering:    Thank you.

Wendy Acker:        We appreciate it.

Officer 3:        And I’m 25 years old now. It’s been with me since I’ve been five.

Wendy Acker:        We appreciate it.

Officer 3:        I didn’t mean to come off rude or anything by saying you’re going to get a ticket.

William Lagering:    Neither did I.

Officer 3:        But I can tell you this, we’ve had several people where they talked themselves into a ticket.

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:        So, Stephen, the fact that you’re able to talk your way into a ticket speaks to officer discretion, that the officer had the choice to give someone a ticket or not, that it wasn’t purely dependent on the legalities, and it simply could be based on whether or not he liked the person he was talking to. I found this very disturbing, and I think it’s also a sign of rural overpolicing as well. Don’t you?

Stephen Janis:    Well, it’s a sign of the absolute nature of police power, because you have a situation where he’s saying, I don’t care what you did, or if you had any sort of infraction, I don’t care what the law says. It’s just whether I decide that I don’t like you. So it’s just an example of police power. I think it’s something that we’ve talked about a lot on this show, that police have this arrogance when they encounter people that, hey, I’m not here to serve you. I’m here to decide whether or not I want to entangle you in the legal system. I think that’s part of the problem.

Taya Graham:        That is just one example of the continually questionable choices of police officers. We also have an update from Livingston, Texas. This is about HBO Matt and his fellow cop watchers like Ismael Rincon. Now, these cop watchers, believe it or not, participated in a very short, I think it was only about two minutes long, and very peaceful cop watch, but they ended up being charged with organized crime. Take a look at this video, and Stephen’s going to share some of his thoughts while we watch.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Speaker 1:        They even need any help?

Officer 4:        I don’t know. They’ve been following me around. They’re suspicious as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know if they’re got partners that are committing crimes somewhere else and they’re keeping an eye on our location. [crosstalk] So you’re going to give me your ID or I’m going to arrest you for fail to ID.

Speaker 2:        And you’re going to go to an FBI, federal prison for it.

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Stephen Janis:    As you can see, it’s a pretty innocuous encounter. They’re just talking to police and trying to explain why they’re driving around. Police are accusing them of stalking them, but there’s really no evidence. To me, they’re trying to bait them and create the scenario under which they can charge him on these very odd and really troubling charges, because organized crime is something usually reserved for drug traffickers or drug kingpins. These guys just have a YouTube channel. So this is a very disturbing example of pushback.

Taya Graham:        This could have a very disturbing effect on the First Amendment, on journalism, and cop watching in general. Stephen, don’t you have an update from the prosecutor for us?

Stephen Janis:    Right. Well, the update is that the grand jury indicted them. We had called the prosecutor’s office in the county that serves Livingston, Texas, and asked them to comment, and they would not comment. And now they’ve indicted them. So they’ve gotten the grand jury to go along with these charges, which I think is very disturbing, and I think very much a threat to cop watchers across the country. Other jurisdictions might be watching and say, oh, we can do this. This is the way we fight back against these guys who want to hold us accountable. So it’s very disturbing overall.

Taya Graham:        Absolutely. If this indictment and the charging is successful, this could have a chilling effect on cop watchers across the country. Because if it works in Texas, you know other states are going to adopt this practice as well.

So one of the concerning issues we see most often with law enforcement is their power to continue to drag out the legal process. We have seen this very clearly with the case of blind justice. Now, believe it or not, he was charged essentially for playing Pokemon Go in a parking lot because he refused to ID himself in a church parking lot. And remember, he was a passenger at the time. This is a disabled veteran who was charged for essentially playing Pokemon Go. Take a look.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Speaker 3:        What is the reason –

Officer 5:        I’m about to bust your window down. Give me your ID.

Speaker 3:        Okay. That’s illegal.

Officer 5:        No, it’s not illegal. Give me your IDs now.

Speaker 3:        What is the reason you’re asking for the ID?

Officer 5:        You got about two seconds before a window’s getting busted out.

Speaker 3:        Can you tell us the reason?

Speaker 4:        I’m afraid to put my hand down.

Speaker 3:        Please don’t smash –

Speaker 4:        Listen, I’m afraid to put my hand down because I don’t want you to say that I’m –

Officer 5:        Just roll the window down, that’s all. All the windows down.

Speaker 3:        The window is cracked.

Officer 5:        You can put your hand down there and roll the window down.

Speaker 3:        You can hear us, right?

Speaker 4:        I’m really scared of you.

Speaker 5:        [over radio] Tags valid, no [inaudible].

Officer 5:        Give me your IDs.

Speaker 4:        We’re afraid of you.

Officer 5:        You’re going to be real afraid, I’m going to…

Speaker 3:        Please don’t smash the window.

Speaker 4:        [crosstalk] Please don’t smash my window. I don’t want to reach down.

Speaker 3:        Please stop. Please stop. What do you need?

Speaker 4:        [crosstalk] What do you want? Can you help me please?

Speaker 3:        What is going on?

Speaker 4:        Please? There’s another somebody on your right. Can I tell him you can’t see?

Speaker 3:        Yeah.

Speaker 4:        He’s blind.

Officer 5:        Roll the window down.

Speaker 4:        I want to help.

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:        Now, what’s crazy to me is that this case has been dragging on for three years. Part of the reason, I think, is because of the difficulty he has in getting accommodations. Is that right, Stephen?

Stephen Janis:    Yeah. I mean, part of the conflict right now is not really about the legality of the case or the charges themselves, but whether or not the court is willing to accommodate him for his disability, to give him the recording devices and the things he needs to actually defend himself. But I think it’s also a really good example, because we actually went down and attended one of the court sessions, of how a very minor arrest against a cop watcher can be dragged out for years and years at great expense in and at great cost of the person, in this case, Blind Justice. So it’s really disturbing. And he’s battling them on what really are our administrative rules that govern the court, and they’re pushing back. I think it’s really strange, because the court that we attended when we went there was pretty modern. It seemed like it would be capable of accommodating him, but they don’t want to accommodate him. So it’s really just, I think, a way of continuing the legal ordeal for him.

Taya Graham:        So not only is the family dealing with this protracted legal process and having trouble getting the accommodations that he needs to be able to defend himself in court, but they’ve also had to pay out of pocket. Ms. Justice had to get a $50,000 loan that they’ve been paying interest on for years. So this has had an emotional cost and a financial one as well.

Now to change things up a little bit, we’re actually going to report on some good news that we have about Otto the Watchdog. You might be familiar with Otto the Watchdog because you may have seen his famous video of him holding up a sign that some people found profane. Take a look at the video and the sign and you can judge for yourself. Well, beauty, like profanity, is in the eye of the beholder. But unfortunately for Otto this has been a court case that has dragged on for years, and eventually led to him receiving child endangerment charges while he was camping out with his kids so that he could go to court the next day. So Stephen, why don’t you give us some of the good news?

Stephen Janis:    Well, the good news is that after we aired his interview, they dropped the charges of child endangerment. But now they have dropped the charges on the original underlying charge of holding a sign, which is really good news because poor Otto has been through it for years and years and years with this legal system, this legal morass. Dragging him back to Texas over and over again when he is trying to get on with his life, keeping him separated from his kids. But now it seems like he might be free and clear of this issue. It’s really amazing. Again, another example of the protracted nature of our legal system and how people, if they don’t like somebody, can use the law to just simply run them through the wringer over and over and over again. But I think finally it seems like, he told us that he is clear of these charges now, and finally maybe this ordeal is over.

Taya Graham:        So even though he’s clear of these charges, his children are going to still be traumatized by the event of seeing the flashlights in the dark and their father being dragged out of their camper. Otto’s never going to be able to get back the months of time that he lost with his kid, and of course the money that he had to spend and the time he had to spend traveling hundreds of miles back and forth for these court dates. So we’re so happy to report this good news about Otto the Watchdog. We want to thank you so much for joining us for this update. As you know, we will always follow up whenever we can to make sure that the people we speak to really are getting justice and really are getting some sort of meaningful accountability or change in their community. So I want to thank you so much for joining me. I’m Taya Graham and…

Stephen Janis:    I’m Stephen Janis.

Taya Graham:        And we are the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.

Taya Graham

Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.

Stephen Janis

Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award winning investigative reporter turned documentary filmmaker. His first feature film, The Friendliest Town was distributed by Gravitas Ventures and won an award of distinction from The Impact Doc Film Festival, and a humanitarian award from The Indie Film Fest. He is the co-host and creator of The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network, which has received more than 10,000,000 views on YouTube. His work as a reporter has been featured on a variety of national shows including the Netflix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, Dead of Night on Investigation Discovery Channel, Relentless on NBC, and Sins of the City on TV One.

He has co-authored several books on policing, corruption, and the root causes of violence including Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore and You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths about Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He is also the co-host of the true crime podcast Land of the Unsolved. Prior to joining The Real News, Janis won three Capital Emmys for investigative series working as an investigative producer for WBFF. Follow him on Twitter.