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St. Paul pays $90,000 to two men who said police beat them

ST. PAUL Craig Spelbrink was wearing a red shirt when he said two St. Paul police officers beat him in a parking ramp. The shirt's color had caught the attention of an officer who wrote in a report that he'd just received word that a robbery susp...


Craig Spelbrink was wearing a red shirt when he said two St. Paul police officers beat him in a parking ramp.

The shirt's color had caught the attention of an officer who wrote in a report that he'd just received word that a robbery suspect in the area was wearing a red shirt. But another officer wrote in his report that the witness had said the robbery victim was wearing a red shirt.

"According to one of the officers' accounts, they basically tackled the victim of a robbery," said Jeff Storms, an attorney who represented Spelbrink and his friend, Robert Geistfeld, in their federal lawsuit against the officers.

The St. Paul City Council approved Wednesday a $90,000 settlement to Spelbrink of Savage, Minn., and Geistfeld, of St. Paul.


The settlement agreement said "the payment made is not to be construed as an admission of liability on the part of the city or the individual defendants."

St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing said today: "This settlement allows the city and its police officers to put these allegations to rest and concentrate on the important task of keeping St. Paul safe. We must not lose sight that St. Paul's police officers protect the public and in doing so make difficult and split-second decisions that may not be easily measured. We are proud of St. Paul police and look forward to our police continuing to focus on protecting the public."

The encounter between the men and the officers was captured on surveillance video.

"As soon as the city of St. Paul became aware of the fact there was video from the parking ramp, they approached us about the case (about settling it)," Storms said today. "The video evidence plainly shows the two plaintiffs were law abiding, they were peaceful. When they were approached by the officers, they did not take any aggressive posture, they did not attempt to flee."

The lawsuit, filed in October, gives the following account:

Spelbrink works as an admission director at the Minnesota School of Business and is pursuing a master of business administration. Geistfeld works for AgriBank as a financial reporting analyst. Neither man was charged with a crime in the case.

Now both 29, they were celebrating a friend's birthday at the Eagle Street Grille downtown. After the men left the West Seventh Street bar with friends about 12:30 a.m. July 24, they headed to the nearby Smith Avenue parking ramp. A friend had parked his truck there and wanted to retrieve some things before they caught a cab to Geistfeld's home, where they planned to sleep for the evening.

Spelbrink fell behind the group and became confused about where the truck was parked. He was taking the stairs to find his friends when he saw the officers.


Officer David Stokes wrote in a police report that he was at Smith Avenue and Kellogg Boulevard when a man, not named in reports, approached him and said a man wearing a red shirt had been robbed and was chasing the suspect. Officer Matthew Sweeney wrote that the witness said a man in a red shirt was the suspect.

Outside the parking ramp, Stokes wrote in his report, "We could hear the sounds of yelling and swearing and fighting." As he and Sweeney ran up the stairs, a man in a red shirt ran down. They ordered him to the ground "and when he did not comply we took him to the ground giving him numerous commands to get his hands behind his back," Stokes wrote. He "was not complying and was flexing and trying to get off the floor," the report said.

According to the lawsuit, "Without any provocation and without Spelbrink posing any threat to the defendant officers, Sweeney violently pushed Spelbrink onto his back....Stokes then proceeded to pounce on top of Spelbrink, and shortly thereafter struck Spelbrink on the left side of his face."

Around that time, not knowing police were there, Geistfeld yelled down to Spelbrink to tell him he walked down too far and where they were, the lawsuit said. Sweeney then ran upstairs toward Geistfeld.

"I didn't know if the male was the suspect, the victim or something else," Sweeney wrote in his report. "I yelled at him to get on the ground. The male stopped in his tracks and looked at me with wide eyes and a blank thousand yard stare. It appeared to me the male was thinking of either running or fighting with me. After yelling at him to get on the ground the second time with no response, I shoved the male in his chest with both hands. When he stepped backwards from the shove, I grabbed his arm and swept his legs causing him to fall to the ground. I was able to use an arm bar to get the male in handcuffs without further use of force."

The lawsuit put it this way, "Despite the fact that Geistfeld was acting peaceably and posed no threat to Sweeney, Sweeney violently grabbed Geistfeld by the neck and arm and threw him to the floor." While handcuffing him, "Sweeney violently drove his knee into Geistfeld's back and executed a violent arm-bar maneuver," the suit continued.

Sweeney wrote in his report, "After things settled down, we were able to determine the two males were friends who were heavily intoxicated and were 'play fighting.' The witness who Officer Stokes was speaking to thought one of the males was robbing the other."

Spelbrink was left with swelling and bruising to his face and eye that lasted about a month, and he had pain and discomfort during that time, the lawsuit said. Geistfeld had pain in his shoulder for several days from Sweeney's "violent arm-bar maneuver" and pain in his hands for several days from the handcuffing, according to the suit.


Stokes brought Spelbrink to the Ramsey County Detoxification Center. His blood-alcohol level was 0.227, the police report said.

Stokes "falsely reported that Spelbrink was taken into custody because he was 'fighting with friends in parking ramp,' " the lawsuit claimed. He was held at the detox center for "in excess of 25 hours based upon Stokes' false statement," the suit said.

Storms said today, "The video evidence is clear they weren't fighting in the parking ramp. In fact, they couldn't find each other in the parking ramp. I believe that false statement continued the unlawful arrest for a period of up to 25 hours. Just because someone is intoxicated doesn't mean they go to detox. There has to be a grounds for it."

The lawsuit claimed the officers violated both men's right to be free from searches and seizures by stopping them without a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, arresting them without probable cause and using excessive and unreasonable force. The suit sought $300,000 for Spelbrink and $150,000 for Geistfeld.

"I think that the $90,000 settlement reflects that there was a use of excessive force on two innocent and law-abiding citizens," Storms said.

The largest settlement St. Paul paid out last year in a police misconduct-related case was $270,000, Grewing said today. Other settlements in similar cases last year were for $57,500, $43,500, $11,500, $10,000 and $1,000, she said.

The lawsuit had named Sweeney and Stokes as the defendants, but Spelbrink and Geistfeld agreed to amend the complaint to name the city as the defendant instead of the individual officers, the settlement agreement said.

Sweeney has been a St. Paul officer since 2007 and Stokes since 1993.


Stokes was one of three St. Paul officers named in a federal lawsuit filed in 2002, which claimed they beat a man without cause after he set off fireworks in his backyard. In 2005, the City Council approved a $115,000 settlement in the case. A search of police records using the plaintiff's name in that case did not show any record of an internal affairs investigation into the officers, said Howie Padilla, St. Paul police spokesman.

At this time, there is no internal affairs investigation into the case involving Spelbrink and Geistfeld, Padilla said.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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