Thursday, January 04, 2007

You Have the Right to a Headbutt -- NOT!

The Lewiston Sun Journal reported today on a case that has been pending since last August, in which a Portland Police officer was accused of head-butting a photographer who also happens to be homeless.

Cong Van Nguyen pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and agreed to pay a $1,000 fine. In return, prosecutors dropped an assault charge that probably would have ended his career as a police officer had he been convicted.

The charge stemmed from a complaint filed in August 2005 by Peter Coltart, who claimed that Nguyen angrily confronted him and then head-butted him in the mouth when he walked in front of the officer's cruiser on Congress Street. Coltart was not seriously hurt. Nguyen has been on leave without pay since he was indicted last February. He now faces possible discipline from his department and the trustees of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, who oversee police certification.
Coltart could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but a prosecutor said he had been informed about the plea agreement and approved of it.

Nathaniel Kuritz, who witnessed the confrontation, said he's concerned about the possibility of Nguyen returning to the force. He said he saw Nguyen jump up to hit the taller Coltart with his head.

"I don't think that there should be second chances given to officers who are supposed to protect people and then do things like this," Kuritz said. "Hopefully he's learned his lesson."

Nguyen, a refugee from Vietnam when he came to Portland in 1975 at age 5, was the first Asian officer on the department when he was hired in 1997.

Back in August, Coltart's own account of the event, along with that of eyewitnesses', was published on a police misconduct monitoring site.

08/18/2005 - PORTLAND, Maine -- Under state law, the penalty for jaywalking these days is a fine no less than $25 and no more than $500. Unless, of course, you're Peter Coltart.

He got head-butted.

Hard to believe, but according to Coltart and three eyewitnesses, it's true: After he walked in front of a police cruiser on Congress Street in downtown Portland last week, Coltart found himself face-to-face with an irate police officer, Cong Van Nguyen. And by the time their not-so-private tete-a-tete ended, witnesses say, the significantly shorter Nguyen was on his tiptoes driving his upper forehead into Coltart's face.

"I really don't want a whole lot," Coltart, 27, said this week. "But I definitely think the officer needs to be somehow reprimanded for this. Someone has to explain to him how to respond to a situation in the proper way."
While Police Chief Michael Chitwood said Tuesday that Nguyen denies head-butting Coltart in broad daylight outside Paul's Food Center on Aug. 1, three witnesses with no connection to either man say that's exactly what happened.

"Oh, yeah, I definitely saw it," recalled Sayre English, who works for a nearby advertising agency and saw the whole thing from the sidewalk on Congress Street. "As soon as it happened, I was like 'Oh my God! That cop just head-butted that guy!' "

According to the written complaint he filed with the Portland Police Department, here is Coltart's version of what happened:

Coltart, a freelance photographer who also happens to be homeless, was crossing against a green light at Congress Street and Forest Avenue on Aug. 1 when he passed in front of a police cruiser, forcing the driver to slow down. Moments later, as Coltart walked on the sidewalk, Nguyen pulled up alongside him in the cruiser, got out and hollered, "Hey (expletive)!"

"Excuse me?" replied Coltart.

"Hey (expletive)," the officer repeated. "Learn how to cross the (expletive) road."

Coltart asked if Nguyen could at least "be a little more civil." Several times, he said, Nguyen replied, "What are you going to do about it?" and at one point shoved Coltart in the chest.

"I'll admit I was a little angry," Coltart wrote in his statement. "And I said, 'Why don't you stop harassing me and get the hell out of here? I haven't done anything. Stop pushing me.' "

Finally, Coltart said, Nguyen turned and began walking back toward his cruiser. Still angry, Coltart yelled, "Good. Get outta here and leave me alone."

At that point, he said, Nguyen "turned around, marched back up to me . . . and head-butted me directly in my face."

"I lifted my hand to my face to make sure there was no blood, that my nose had not been broken or that my teeth had been knocked out," Coltart said. Despite the pain, he said, there was no serious damage.

Coltart said Nguyen then told him, "I'll see you down at the headquarters," got back in his cruiser and drove away. Coltart immediately got out his notebook and started asking bystanders for their names and telephone numbers.

From there, he made a beeline for Portland police headquarters. At first, he said, he was told that he could not file a formal complaint because "I was trying to provoke the officer." But later last week, police finally took his statement.

Chitwood, who will leave Portland on Friday for his new job as police chief in Upper Darby Township, Pa., said the matter is under investigation by the department's internal affairs unit. But he added that "preliminary" information from Nguyen, who was not available for an interview Tuesday, suggests that Coltart was looking for a confrontation with the officer.

"(Nguyen) is a very small officer," Chitwood said. "At one point, the guy (Coltart) is standing over him saying 'What are you going to do about it?' and (Nguyen) pushes him back. That's it."

And the head-butting?

"Nguyen claims he never head-butted anybody," Chitwood replied.

Which brings us back to English, who was walking to Paul's Food Center with Nathaniel Kuritz, a co-worker at Garrand & Co., when they saw the top of Nguyen's head meet the bottom of Coltart's face.

Is there any chance they were mistaken?

"None," English replied. "None at all."

Echoed Kuritz, "We saw the officer jump in the air and head-butt (Coltart) and we're like, 'Wow! What's going on?' I've never seen that done before -- and (Nguyen) had to actually jump to get (Coltart's) head."

Also watching was Leonard Weiss, who lives in an apartment building on Congress Square. Upon hearing Nguyen's and Coltart's raised voices, Weiss said, he turned to look just in time to see the officer push Coltart in the chest.

"The next thing I know, the kid and (Nguyen) get real close and the officer butts him with his head," Weiss said. "I said, 'What the heck? Right there in broad daylight.' "

Coltart, for the record, has a criminal trespass charge pending against him in Lewiston, stemming from his alleged crossing of a police line during Laura Bush's visit there last year. He has had a handful of other encounters with Portland police in recent weeks -- he said most involved them asking him for identification and none have led to any charges against him.

Coltart said he's fallen on hard times since he graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington in 2000 with a bachelor's degree in sociology. He now spends his nights at the Milestone Foundation shelter on India Street and his days walking around downtown Portland, working on a photography project about life in the city.

Coltart insists that he's not trying to follow in the footsteps of plaintiffs whose $672,000 in settlements with the city prompted the two-year Justice Department investigation that ended last summer. (A follow-up letter last month from the feds praised the city for its "progress" in training officers about the use of force.) At the moment, he said, he has no plans to sue anybody.

So why take his complaint public?

"Because if you're homeless in Portland and you walk around with a knapsack on your back, you do get treated differently," Coltart said. "I think people need to know that."

This is not Coltart's first run-in with police aggression. Back in 2003, he was, in fact, carrying a press card from the Lewiston Sun Journal itself (interesting!) when he attended the February 15th anti-war rally in New York City, after which he was quoted in a Village Voice article as follows:
The police definitely used "rough tactics," said Peter Coltart, a 24-year-old photographer who traveled from Maine to New York to cover the rally. Coltart, who carries a press pass from the Lewiston Sun Journal, spent several hours in the packed blocks of the East Fifties, watching police push the demonstrators around. "Sometimes when I put a camera up, they'd be more careful," he said, "but other times if I tried to take a picture, they would either put their hand up or tell me to move along."

Coltart claimed that one officer knocked him down three times and another picked him up off the street and threw him. The first incident occurred at an intersection where protesters were densely packed on the sidewalk, facing a line of cops on foot and on horseback. The police were pushing people back so buses and cranes could come through. "I was standing there taking photographs," he recalled. "Me and the cop were facing each other and the cop said, 'You've gotta move.' " The next thing he remembers is, "I got knocked down by a police officer. I was on the ground, got up, and got knocked down again. I was knocked down three times and trampled on by other protesters."

Later, Coltart arrived on a side street where protesters had begun a mass sit-down. Police were telling people to get up and arresting them if they did not. "I saw this guy lying down getting arrested," Coltart recalled. "I ran out toward the street, got on my stomach in front of the guy, and popped off two frames. Then all of a sudden, I was floating. A big cop reached down—he must have weighed over 200 pounds. I weigh 150. He grabbed my jacket with one hand and picked me up. I kept shooting. He threw me back into the crowd. I don't think I landed on my feet."

1 comment:

Brambor said...

If Coultard headbutted the officer instead I doubt we would see him walk off with a 1000 dollar fineg but what else is new....?