Transcript

Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. Today, we have a breaking news update about a story we reported on last year. It’s the tale of a militarized unit of Columbus, Ohio, police who, as you can see in this video, stormed the property of a resident recording them, but before I get started, I want you watching to know that we can investigate for you, too. Please send us your tips and evidence of police misconduct to par@therealnews.com or share them with us at The Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram. Of course, you can share with me privately @tayasbaltimore on Twitter and Facebook and message me directly. Please like and share and comment on our videos. We need and appreciate your support. 

Now, as you know, this show is focused on a single objective: holding police accountable. And as we’ve noted on previous shows, that entails not just reporting the facts of a case, but following up on the stories we’ve reported on in the past, which is why today we’re going to revisit the story of Columbus, Ohio, resident Nick Pettit and, in the process, hopefully offer an example of how holding police accountable and getting results is, in fact, possible. Pettit is the man who took this video, a harrowing encounter with police that all started with a simple decision by him to record. Let’s listen to him recount what happened as he witnessed a police officer strike a teenager and how they responded to his criticism. 

Nick Pettit: I didn’t expect to see the assault on a minor. I’m a father. I have three kids myself. So I would expect if somebody seen an officer do that to my child unlawfully or even if it was lawfully, it’s not your place to do that to my child. When I started recording, everything should have been normal. Nothing should have been said to me. The search had been pretty much completed at that point. When I pulled my phone out and started recording and the officer started addressing me, it was one of those things where I didn’t know if I was in the right or wrong at the time for sure, but I wasn’t interfering with their investigation. I wasn’t talking to them or anything like that. 

Taya Graham: Police threw Pettit to the ground, confiscated his phone, and arrested him and held him in prison for five days, and charged him with the heinous crime of misconduct during an emergency situation. This all happened despite the fact that Pettit was standing on his own porch, exercising his First Amendment rights. Of course as with many stories of fraught police encounters we cover, Pettit lost his job prospects, faced a variety of court challenges, and overall, suffered many of the common setbacks that usually occur when law enforcement initiate questionable arrests. Let’s listen. 

Nick Pettit: When they took me to jail, I think I rode around in the back of a police van for about a good hour and a half, two hours before I got to the police or to the detective’s office where I sat for a minute and then went to the jailhouse, but I had had an appointment set up with the judge for one of my other cases that I was already trying to get handled. With this happening, it kind of messed that up and I ended up catching kind of more hefty sentence on that because it messed up everything that was supposed to be going on. They charged me with misconduct at an emergency, which apparently is only a law here in Ohio. 

To call my wife from somebody else’s inmate number and using their information to call and hearing my wife cry about the fact that she can’t find me in the jail system, she doesn’t know where I’m at, she doesn’t know if I’m in the hospital, she doesn’t know if I’m dead for five days. Then I get charges brought up against me and fight that for a year. After the first five days, I spent another 22 days in jail and then got released. Then when the court dates come, to hear the prosecutor constantly say I was in the wrong for voicing my opinion or I was in the wrong for causing a harmful situation by recording with my cell phone and not speaking, it kind of made me lose trust in the justice system. 

Taya Graham: But now, let’s move on to breaking news about the case, pushback that occurred when we at the Police Accountability Report followed up on Nick’s story and connected him with the ACLU in Ohio. We just want to say thank you to Debbie Jeon at the ACLU of Maryland for putting us in touch with her colleagues in Ohio. But to get more details, I’m joined by my reporting partner Stephen Janis. Stephen, thank you for joining me. 

Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it. 

Taya Graham: So Stephen, the ACLU of Ohio took legal action on Nick’s behalf. What did they do?

Stephen Janis: Well, the breaking news here is that the ACLU of Ohio has sued Columbus Police on behalf of Nick Pettit in federal court, a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging that they violated his First Amendment rights. So that’s big breaking news from Columbus, Ohio, and big breaking news for a guest of our show. 

Taya Graham: Now, Stephen, you’ve reviewed the filing. What stands out with you in regards to the lawsuit?

Stephen Janis: Well, there are two interesting things here. Number one, the SWAT team that did the raid didn’t find any guns in Nick’s neighbor’s house. So that’s number one. Number two, which is amazing, is that the 911 operator, when Nick’s sister-in-law called the 911 operator and said, “Hey, they’re brutalizing my brother-in-law,” the operator threatened her with arrest.

Pettit’s Sister [Audio Clip]: My brother-in-law, talking about arresting me because I’m recording. 

911 Operator [Audio Clip]: Ma’am, ma’am. 

Pettit’s Sister [Audio Clip]: Yes. 

911 Operator [Audio Clip]: Ma’am. 

Pettit’s Sister [Audio Clip]: Yes. 

911 Operator [Audio Clip]: Listen to me. 

Pettit’s Sister [Audio Clip]: That’s just one officer yelling at me right now-

911 Operator [Audio Clip]: Okay. 

Pettit’s Sister [Audio Clip]: … because I got my door open. 

911 Operator [Audio Clip]: Listen to me. Listen to me. You’re going to get your with misuse of 911. 

Pettit’s Sister [Audio Clip]: How?

911 Operator [Audio Clip]: Because you’re calling 911 when the police-

Pettit’s Sister [Audio Clip]: [crosstalk 00:06:02]. 

911 Operator [Audio Clip]: You’re calling 911 when the police are at your house. 

Stephen Janis: So the violations didn’t just end with what they did to Nick. 

Taya Graham: So you’ve reached out to Columbus Police for comment. What did they say?

Stephen Janis: Well, I sent an email asking for comment on the lawsuit. They said they would not comment on pending litigation. However, when they filed their response in court, we should get an idea of what they have to say about this and we will report back on it as soon as we get it, Taya. 

Taya Graham: And now joining us to discuss the most recent developments, here is the man at the heart of the controversy, Nick Pettit. Nick, thank you so much for your time. 

Nick Pettit: Hey, thanks for having me back. It’s good to be back. 

Taya Graham: Nick, what kind of impact did this have on you and your family emotionally, financially? What kind of toll has this taken on you?

Nick Pettit: This is tough to talk about because, like I said, I’ve been treated like I didn’t have a voice for most of my life. I’ve had incidents like I describe where I got stopped for a small traffic violation and had highway patrol pull guns on me. I have it where I walk down the street and they jump out of their car, run up on me with guns, and tell me I’m not allowed to talk or tell my side of the story. You guys … Oh, man. I can’t even begin to describe how happy you guys have made me. So I thank all of you. I may not know all of your names, but thank you all. 

Taya Graham: Nick, I know it’s so difficult to get a job after having a record and to have someone give you a chance at employment, someone who sees you as you, not as your past. How much did it hurt to lose this opportunity?

Nick Pettit: The physical doesn’t even compare to that amount of pain. That pain doesn’t go away. That pain is something that I have been fighting for years to even feel remotely close to a normal person. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve judged myself very, very harshly for those mistakes. I’ve always told myself I’m not a good person, that nobody’s going to care about me anymore and nobody’s going to give me a chance. Then my wife, I meet her, and she gives me a chance. I apply to this major, just huge, major Fortune 500 company. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for somebody like me, especially after the struggle that I’ve been through.

I’ve applied and applied and applied and applied for multiple jobs and I keep getting turned down. Either my record’s too intense, or the publicity behind what was going on was too much for the company and they didn’t want to have anything that looked bad on them. So for Big Lots to reach out and say, “Yeah, we’ll hire you,” that made me feel … That pain trumps the physical pain, the scars on my face, the dislocated shoulder, and the sharp pains that I get when I move too much in one direction. That doesn’t even come close to how I feel inside. 

Taya Graham: Nick, when your rights were first violated by the police, do you feel like the mainstream media heard you and took you seriously?

Nick Pettit: No. No, honestly, I don’t. I’m not going to name the news network, but I did an interview and during the interview, everything seemed fine. The person seemed like they were on my side. Then when the story broke, it was like, “Oh, wow. Really? You’re kind of painting me out to be a bad guy. Instead of talking about this specific incident, you’re going into my past about how I have multiple felonies and all this other stuff. That’s my information to tell. It’s not yours. That has nothing to do with this case. That has nothing to do with this trial, and you’re painting these slanderous things against me. Yeah, they may be true, but that’s not what we are here to talk about. You’re essentially trying to turn the public against the fact that I was done wrong to protect the police who were supposed to be the ones who protect us.”

Taya Graham: The ACLU has recognized that this was a violation of your civil rights. What is the ACLU doing on your behalf?

Nick Pettit: The ACLU has actually done a lot. They did a lot of research into this. They found out that a lot of the things that were done were unconstitutional. They did violate my rights, and they pursued a suit against certain individuals and parties. I am not 100% at liberty to speak about that, but they were the ones that let me know that it was okay to still trust some people in the system. They let me know that there are still good people there, but at the same time, they kind of also reaffirmed that the system is a lot more worse off than what I initially thought it was. 

Taya Graham: Now, as we can see from Nick’s experience, police accountability is not only an important, but essential, task. As Nick shared with us in his interview, that single encounter with Columbus, Ohio, police set off a chain of circumstances that continue to have repercussions in his life. I think it’s a cautionary tale for all the pro-police apologists who think that law enforcement need unfettered powers and that the casualties of police overreach are just the cost of doing business. 

Nothing could emphasize this point more than a recent report from the Maryland branch of the ACLU, the same organization that helped us help Nick. Last week, they issued a report that documented the lack of accountability in the Baltimore Police Department and what it revealed is both troubling and indicative of how difficult it is to police the police. The report tallied the number of complaints against the officers and made the list available to the public. It is a stark documentation of just how incapable our elected leaders are of institutional and meaningful reform. The study analyzed citizen complaints filed against the Baltimore Police officers between 2015 and 2019. In total, it revealed during that period of time residents filed some 13,392 such complaints against the department with under 3,000 officers, but it’s the officers who made the top of that list that we’re showing on the screen that are the most startling. 

That’s because the names you’re seeing now, Wayne Jenkins, Evodio Hendrix, Marcus Taylor, are all parts of one of the most corrupt police units in a town with a penchant for police malfeasance. All three were members of the so-called Gun Trace Task Force, a group of officers who robbed residents, stole overtime, and dealt drugs, a brazen group of lawless cops who were well-known to residents for their brutal tactics and disregard for the law. In fact, even when the Department of Justice was actively investigating the Baltimore Police Department in 2016, members of the Gun Trace Task Force continued to plunder the city using their police powers for personal gain while wreaking havoc on the city they were sworn to serve. 

But what’s most alarming and revealing about the report is that even though these complaints streamed in against these officers, the city did nothing. In fact, the police department touted the accomplishments of the GTTF, often sending emails to the media announcing gun arrests even while the citizens were crying out for help. In other words, as serious complaints were being filed at great personal risk to the residents of the city, even as these notifications recounted the same criminal behavior that eventually ensnared the Gun Trace Task Force in a series of high-profile crimes and lengthy prison sentences, the city did absolutely nothing. Not a thing. 

Instead, the police budget was increased, police reform legislation continued to languish, and the political power of law enforcement flourished. That’s the point, and that’s the reason we do what we do because, despite all the processes and checks and balances that were purportedly in place to stop cops from acting as criminals, nothing happened. Despite the fact these officers were robbing residents, dealing drugs, and filling out fake time sheets, the reason they were caught was because one of the GTTF members was caught on a wiretap of an unrelated drug investigation. That’s right. The city did nothing, saw nothing, and ignored everything. The cries of help from its residents were pushed aside while the GTTF racked up incredible salaries, drug stashes, and victims that numbered in the hundreds. 

That’s the point, why it’s so important for us to tell the stories of people like Nick Pettit, to help be the voice of the voiceless, to give citizens like Nick a way to tell their side of the story. Let’s remember, as Nick pointed out, the local media painted him as a criminal, as a man unworthy to be treated fairly due to his past, of a person who, in their view, deserved to be thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and illegally arrested, whose subsequent suffering and the consequences of these actions were not considered worthy of sincere recognition. Instead, like most of the mainstream media, they venerated the cops and ignored the consequences for the people who got in their way. 

Well, at the Police Accountability Report, we take the opposite approach. We listen to you to give a fair and reasonable account of the other side, to ensure that law enforcement is not the only voice that gets heard. It’s a pledge that we will keep so that the voiceless will not be silenced. I want to thank Nick for talking with us and for being willing to speak out for others. 

Nick Pettit: Thank you all very much. 

Taya Graham: And I want to thank my reporting partner Stephen Janis for his editing, writing, and research on this piece. Thank you, Stephen. 

Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Taya Graham: And of course, I have to thank friend of the show, Noli Dee for her support. Thanks, Noli Dee. And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us.

You can email us tips privately at par@therealnews.com and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at The Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or @eyesonpolice on Twitter and of course, you can message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook. Please like and comment. I do read your comments and I appreciate them and I try to answer your questions whenever I can. My name is Taya Graham, and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.

The encounter between Nick Pettit and a Columbus, Ohio, SWAT team exemplifies the ongoing problems stemming from the growth of militarized policing. In this episode, we review the process by which PAR helped Pettit fight back, and the details of the lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Ohio filed on his behalf, which seeks to hold the officers who assaulted Pettit on his own porch accountable.

Tune in every Thursday at 9:00 p.m. EST for new episodes of the Police Accountability Report.

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.

Stephen Janis

Host & Producer

Stephen Janis is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has been acclaimed both in print and on television. As the Senior Investigative Reporter for the now defunct Baltimore Examiner, he won two Maryland DC Delaware Press Association Awards for his work on the number of unsolved murders in Baltimore and the killings of prostitutes. His in-depth work on the city's zero-tolerance policing policies garnered an NAACP President's Award. As an Investigative Producer for WBFF/Fox 45, he has won three successive Capital Emmys: two for Best Investigative Series and one for Outstanding Historical/Cultural Piece.

He is the author of three books on the philosophy of policing: Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore; You Can't Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond; and The Book of Cop: A Testament to Policing That Works. He has also written two novels, This Dream Called Death and Orange: The Diary of an Urban Surrealist. He teaches journalism at Towson University.