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Police brutality questioned at public safety meeting

Date: 1/13/2010

Jan. 13, 2010.

By Mike Briotta

PRIME Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- The mayor and police commissioner heard public outcry last Friday night in the aftermath of new police brutality allegations against patrolman Jeffrey M. Asher.

A community forum, hosted by the McKnight Neighborhood Youth Council, was scheduled to discuss general public safety issues, but quickly centered around recently released videotape footage of Asher, a white officer, allegedly beating a 28-year-old black man with a flashlight during a traffic stop in late November.

Three other officers were also involved in the incident, but according to video footage, Asher is shown swinging the flashlight multiple times, bludgeoning Melvin Jones III of Springfield.

Jones suffered fractures to his facial bones, which needed reconstructive surgery, according to published reports. He also sustained a broken finger and was partially blinded in one eye. Jones was charged with drug possession and resisting arrest; he plead innocent to all charges.

Meeting attendees last Friday night, many of them representatives of local clergy, questioned whether or not Asher would be punished fairly for the alleged attack. Public comments were heard in the Rebecca Johnson School auditorium, which was about half-full with concerned citizens.

When asked who was overseeing the case, Mayor Domenic Sarno replied, "There are other eyes on this. The D.A.'s office has a protocol to notify the F.B.I. in these types of situations. The D.A. is the senior law enforcement officer in the county. He's a very honorable man. It's not just something that's going away -- we know that. We understand your concerns and we're going to address them."

District Attorney William M. Bennett had released a written statement the previous day stating, "I am aware of the internal police investigation regarding the arrest of Melvin Jones III. I will be reviewing all relevant information regarding the arrest and the internal investigation."

Many in the audience, however, were unconvinced that Bennett would take severe actions against Asher, since the patrolman has been the focus of similar allegations of police brutality in the past, yet remains on the force.

Specifically, audience members mentioned a notable case against Asher 13 years ago. In 1997, he was caught on videotape, kicking Roy Parker, a black man who was already handcuffed and being restrained. Asher was later cleared of criminal wrongdoing by a judge who said he had used reasonable force.

"The judge found no probable cause in that case, and so the D.A. did not prosecute," Police Commissioner William J. Fitchet told the assembled crowd last Friday night.

He continued, "I have great faith in the agencies that will monitor this." When confronted with other narratives detailing alleged police brutality in Springfield, the chief replied, "Internal Affairs is led by Lieutenant Larry Brown. I trust him implicitly. If you have a complaint, they will investigate the complaint." He later assuaged the crowd's fears by saying, "I'm here tonight. I'm not hiding under the table. I understand that you have these issues, and I'm looking you in the eyes." According to police, the department's Internal Affairs Unit is conducting a separate investigation into the events shown on the late-November video, to determine if there was any police misconduct.

In the police report of the incident, one of the officers stated that the struggle ensued when Jones became violent and grabbed an officer's gun. No injuries to any of the officers were reported in the Jones case.

The well-known video from 1997 also allegedly showed Asher attacking a black suspect who had already been subdued by other officers. That high-profile incident was not the only time Asher had been accused of police brutality previously.

In late 2004, Asher was among a group of white officers accused of beating a black school principal in his car in the South End. Those officers were later cleared of wrongdoing by the Police Commission in a split vote. In 2000, the city settled a police brutality complaint against Asher and another officer for a 1994 incident.

Assembled members of the public at the Jan. 8 meeting suggested to the police chief that Asher should be suspended indefinitely without pay while this most recent incident is under investigation. Area residents demanded to know if Asher was still patrolling the streets, and also wanted answers about why he had not been suspended for a longer duration.

Fitchet responded, "Statutorily, the police commissioner can only suspend for five days without a hearing, and you cannot compel testimony during a criminal investigation." He added, "I alluded earlier to Constitutional issues, and we also do not want to prejudice a case where the D.A. is concerned." He concluded by reassuring the audience, "Officer Asher is not on the street tonight, and will not take jobs until this issue is done."