On this episode of the Police Accountability Report we take a look at a Columbus, OH SWAT team’s brutal arrest of a man who recorded them swarming a residential neighborhood. We dive into how the militarization of policing turns law enforcement into an occupying force.
TAYA GRAHAM: Welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As we’ve said before, the show has a single purpose: to hold police accountable. To do so, we report on stories across the country where police abused their extraordinary powers. But we also take the time to examine the underlying political economy that also seems to make American policing above the law.
But before we get into the report, if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate like we did for our viewers Nickk Pettit, Noli Dee, and Blind Justice. Please reach out to us either in the comments or message us at the Police Accountability Report on Facebook or at Eyes on Police on Twitter. And of course, you can email us privately at email@example.com and you can message me directly @TayasBaltimore on Twitter or Facebook. Remember to like, comment, and subscribe. It really does make a difference.
So ever since the uprising in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police, which revealed images of police pointing assault rifles at protestors, it’s been clear: Civilian policing is adopting military tactics, particularly after it was revealed the U.S. military was giving excess equipment to police departments even for small rural towns. So Stephen, where does this military equipment end up and why is it being sent to these small police departments?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, in the early nineties the federal government started a program called 1033 where they would give excess military equipment to local police departments. They kind of upped the ante several years later because of the so-called war on drugs. And what happened was they started giving out like grenade launchers and armored vehicles. And after the uprising in Ferguson, when national images showed police officers pointing assault rifles and sitting in armored carriers, the Obama Administration said, “We’ve got to roll this back a little bit more. We’re not going to give you a grenade launchers or other types of military equipment.”
And then, of course, in 2017 the Trump Administration said, “Well, you know what, let’s restart this program. Or not restart it, but let’s actually broaden it again and give everybody what they want.” But of course, it really raises a lot of questions. Because there was supposed to be this distinction between the military and civilian, but in this country now, we are literally giving our excess military equipment that was supposed to be use for fighting or killing people to our police departments. And over 8,000 police departments participated in 2014, which means there are a lot of local small town police departments that have military style equipment that seems to me to be excessive.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s amazing that our local police departments are having military ordnance.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah.
TAYA GRAHAM: Well, there is no better example of this evolution towards a veritable occupying army than the video that was given to us by a viewer. The images, captured on a cell phone, show a raid at a home in Columbus, Ohio. Allegedly police were looking for a suspect tied to a recent shooting, but a resident observing police from his property documented something else concerning: One of the cops slaps a man across the face. And it’s here where we see how militarized policing translates into something entirely unprecedented. That’s because when the observer calls out police for their abuse, the police attack.
As you can see, a cadre of officers dressed in military uniforms storm into his yard. And even though the observer is clearly on his own property, and even though the First Amendment clearly gives them the right to photograph police, they swarm his property without a warrant. And then this: an arrest. That’s right. A man watching police from his own yard, exercising his constitutional rights, is arrested. And to find out what that meant and the consequences for him, we are pleased to be joined by Nick Pettit, the man who was the target of this police malfeasance. Nick, thank you so much for joining us.
NICK PETTIT: It’s nice to meet you guys. Thanks for having me.
TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely. So just give us a sense of how this all started. Why were the police there and why did you decide to document the police?
NICK PETTIT: Well, to begin with the police; they claim that they were there because of an illegal firearm, like automatic weapons or something to do with that. And then it had to do with a street gang supposedly, which is what was released recently by investigators. But while the police were outside the home and in front of my home… Which you know, because I live across the street from the incident, they were saying that it was due to someone there having a gun or a shooting at a park, which happened not too far from the home.
TAYA GRAHAM: So there’s a point where it looks like one of the officers strikes a young man in front of a child. What do you think happened? Why do you think the officer struck that man?
NICK PETTIT: Honestly, to be truthful, a lot of stuff wasn’t really showed in the video. I tried to make it clear in the comments on the video that the person who was assaulted was a 16-year-old minor.
TAYA GRAHAM: A 16-year-old, wow.
NICK PETTIT: Yes, ma’am. His family just reached out to me yesterday and they kind of wanted to know if they could come to the court date that I have coming up due to the charges that I received from this. The officers in the video claimed… Well, the spokesperson from SWAT said that he acted aggressively when he came off of the porch and refuse to comply with orders. Well, during the video, the police officers, SWAT, they told the people in the house to come outside. There was a 67-year old woman, a 16-year old male who was assaulted and a nine year old boy. When the 16-year old got into the circle of officers, they told him to put his hands down and one proceeded to assault the 16-year old. At that point, that’s where I decided to stand up and say something.
NIC PETIT (in video): Hey, you ain’t supposed to smack him like that. The fuck is wrong with you? Hey, I got all that shit on camera. What’s your name, bro? Hey, you weren’t supposed to smack him in the face. The fuck is wrong with you? Hell no, man. I’m on my property. I ain’t got to listen to you man. I’m on my property. You can’t come over here and do nothing to me. Hey, you ain’t got a search warrant. You can’t come over here, man. Hey look, I got you on camera right now. I’m on my private property.
SPEAKER: You’re under arrest.
NICK PETTIT: For what?
SPEAKER: You’re under arrest.
NIC PETIT (in video): For what? I didn’t even do nothing but record this whole situation. What are you doing?
SPEAKER: Give me the phone. You’re interfering.
NIC PETIT (in video): I didn’t do nothing, all I said was [crosstalk 00:06:49]. Crystal, call the cops.
STEPHEN JANIS: They seem to come up to your porch to grab you, and they actually arrested you. What did they charge you with, or what did they say they were arresting you for? It was kind of hard to understand.
NICK PETTIT: Well, at the time, they told me they were arresting me for refusing a direct order to go inside my home and stop recording.
TAYA GRAHAM: So just so just tell us, what were you charged with and for how long were you in jail?
NICK PETTIT: I was actually charged with improper behavior during an emergency situation. I spent roughly 24 to 25 days in jail.
STEPHEN JANIS: What?
NICK PETTIT: I, at the time… I want to be forthcoming. So at the time I did have a warrant for my arrest for another charge, but that had nothing to do with this. I had failed to show up to a court date. I had missed the paperwork and didn’t know that I had court. That’s why I had the warrant.
TAYA GRAHAM: That happens to a lot of people.
NICK PETTIT: Yeah, unfortunately. But they told me that they were arresting me at the time for not following the direct order to go inside my home and stop recording.
TAYA GRAHAM: So let me ask you something. When it was first happening, you call out, you see this young man being hit in the face, and then the officers start yelling at you and you see them approach your house. You see them storm into your yard. What was going through your mind when you saw them coming in this military uniform with these big guns? What were you thinking?
NICK PETTIT: There was a lot that was going on. I was thinking, you know, I’m probably going to get shot now. There’s the thought of being severely abused. There’s pictures on the police report of where they assaulted me. I had marks on my head, and I had marks on my legs; a dislocated shoulder from them doing what they did.
STEPHEN JANIS: You had a dislocated shoulder?
NICK PETTIT: Yes sir, from where one of the officers pulled my arm behind my back. I had told him that I felt a lot of pressure, that it hurt, and he didn’t care. He just kept pressing.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s terrible.
STEPHEN JANIS: Wow. I mean, that’s a severe injury. Do they treat you for that? Or what happened when you were in prison or jail?
NICK PETTIT: No, they did not treat any injuries at the county jail. Our county jail is actually a really bad place to go, because they don’t tend to take care of any of the inmates here. And it’s almost as bad as the officers in the streets. They do what they want to do, and they are essentially the same people who put on the SWAT uniforms.
STEPHEN JANIS: Wow. So you’re saying that the relationship between the police and community… Because they kind of look like an occupying army. Is that indicative of how the police relationship is between the community and the police in Columbus?
NICK PETTIT: Not in total. We do have some good officers, but there are the few, like the ones in my video and the ones I described that go down the road at 110 miles an hour with no lights on and not caring whether somebody in the street–it’s two o’clock in the morning, that make the rest of the officers in Columbus look bad.
STEPHEN JANIS: Oh. So what specific charges are you facing now; how many charges? And what exactly is the case they brought against you?
NICK PETTIT: The charges I’m facing now, it’s just one. But it’s improper behavior during an emergency situation.
STEPHEN JANIS: Is it a misdemeanor or felony, or did they tell you?
NICK PETTIT: It’s a lower misdemeanor. The reason why the original prosecutor on my case said she wanted to try the case was because at the time of my arrest I had a warrant. But I don’t understand why that had anything to do with what charges I’m facing and why I’m going to trial on that, because the officers didn’t know for a whole half hour that I had a warrant. They didn’t run my information until after everybody had come out of the house and they had cleared the home; which they found no guns, no drugs. The people they were looking for weren’t even there.
STEPHEN JANIS: Really? So that was a futile raid, nothing came out of that?
NICK PETTIT: Exactly.
TAYA GRAHAM: Except for you ending up with medical bills, losing time in jail, and now having to even possibly pay legal fees. So someone did lose out in this scenario?
NICK PETTIT: Yes ma’am. I lost my job and everything.
STEPHEN JANIS: You lost your job?
TAYA GRAHAM: Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know that. Let me ask you something. Do you know if these officers use any dash cameras on their cars or have body cameras? Because I really think having access to that footage would be important and would support your case. Do you know if they have body cameras or dash cams?
NICK PETTIT: They recently passed a law in Columbus where every officer is supposed to have a body camera so there’s protection against them using excessive force or any type of police brutality in the incident. They claim that the SWAT officers didn’t have body cameras on. When I got sat down behind one of the police wagons, the officers there, they were regular clothes officers–like they had on uniform. They didn’t have on the military uniform, the helmets and the big guns. They had body cameras on. And the two officers that were there, they were like, “This doesn’t seem right. You don’t seem like the type of person that would be aggressive or harm the situation.”
TAYA GRAHAM: You know, you mentioned that the family of the young man who was assaulted by the police officer wanted to support you in court. Are they showing up on your behalf because you stood up for their son?
NICK PETTIT: I believe so, yes.
TAYA GRAHAM: And let me just ask you one more question. How did you feel about police before this encounter and how do you feel about them now?
NICK PETTIT: I never really gave the police too much thought at the time. Before the incident it was just, “Hey, they have a job to do and as long as I stay out of trouble and I don’t cause any trouble then they won’t come bother me. As long as I do the right thing, then I’ll be okay.” But now it’s like wow, I sit here, and I inform an adult officer that he just assaulted a minor and here I am getting arrested and slammed on my face and my rights violated. So it’s like wow, can I really trust the people who were supposed to protect and serve and uphold the Constitution?
STEPHEN JANIS: Hey Nick, do you mind if we call the prosecutor’s office and ask them why they’re pursuing this case? Because it seems to me that you were well within your rights and we would like to give them a call and find out why exactly they’re pursuing a prosecution against you.
NICK PETTIT: No, I don’t mind at all.
STEPHEN JANIS: That’s something we’re going to follow up on.
TAYA GRAHAM: We’re going to follow up on that. I just want to know, are you thinking about taking any legal action? For example, maybe suing the police department so that you can get your medical bills taken care of, or to make up for the fact that you lost your job because of their action?
NICK PETTIT: Like I stated before: it’s not about money, it’s not about fame. Right now, it’s all about accountability. You know, if I do something wrong, I get arrested, I go to jail, I pay bills, I have fines and restitution I have to pay. But there was an interview done with a local news network here in Columbus where they had talked to the spokesperson for SWAT. And he said that no charges have been filed against the officer and no complaints had been filed against the officer. They talked to him about it and the SWAT representative also said that at the time, “Maybe it wasn’t so much a lawful arrest when they arrested me as a tactical arrest.”
STEPHEN JANIS: Wow, that’s a rewriting of the Constitution.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s really interesting. So they trample on your constitutional rights; they storm into your house; they attack you; they dislocate your shoulder; they imprison you; cause you to lose your job. And what he gets is a talking to?
STEPHEN JANIS: But thinking about what he’s just saying is profound. He’s saying it’s a tactical arrest, which means that the militarism justifies it. There’s nothing in the Constitution that gives police officers the right to make a tactical arrest. So that’s really profound that they’re saying, “Hey we’re in a military style situation. We can just detain American citizens regardless of their rights.”
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. Because it’s an emergency situation, so the regular rules and laws and the Constitution don’t apply anymore. Not for us. Incredible. I want to thank my cohost, Stephen Janis for his help in this investigation. And Nick, I want to thank you so much for reaching out to us and for trusting us with your story. We really appreciate it, Nick. Thank you.
NICK PETTIT: I want to thank you guys for helping me share it. I mean, it’s like I said, it’s about accountability now. We get in trouble when we do something wrong, why can’t a person know who wears the badge or who’s supposed to protect us get in trouble when they don’t?
STEPHEN JANIS: We’re going to follow up on this.
TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely.
STEPHEN JANIS: We’re going to call the prosecutor and we’re going to ask them if they want to come on and tell us and explain to us why. I think that’d be a good thing too.
TAYA GRAHAM: We’re going to do our best to hold them accountable. Thank you, Nick. Thank you so much for joining us.
STEPHEN JANIS: Thanks, Nick.
NICK PETTIT: No problem, thank you guys. Have a good day.
TAYA GRAHAM: You too. And for those of you watching like Nick did, this is your power, the power of those of you who are watching, to reach out to us and share your story. When you don’t know if you can trust your local law enforcement, reach out to independent media, to us, so together we can try to apply the pressure needed to change the criminal behavior of officers. We can’t do it without you.
So if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate like we did for Nickk Pettit, Noli Dee, and Blind Justice. Please reach out to us either in the comments or messages at The Police Accountability Report on Facebook or at Eyes on Police on Twitter; or you can privately email us firstname.lastname@example.org, and of course, you can message me directly @TayasBaltimore on Twitter or Facebook. Remember to like, comment and subscribe. It really does help and make a difference. We do this work for you and we can’t do it without you.
I’m your host, Taya Graham, and thank you for joining me for the Police Accountability Report.