HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Jurors hearing the federal trial of an Alabama police officer who slammed an Indian grandfather to the ground began deliberating Wednesday night whether the officer overreacted or was justified based on a perceived threat.
Madison police officer Eric Parker took the stand in his own defense and said he didn't use any specific technique to take Sureshbhai Patel, 58, to the ground face first. Parker later said the maneuver wasn't unfamiliar either.
"I've taken several subjects to the ground the same way and nothing has happened," Parker said. "This was an accident, this was not something intentional."
Patel was stopped during a suspicious person call on Feb. 6. Parker has said the man tried walking away from officers, put his hands in his pockets and defied orders before he was slammed to the ground and handcuffed.
Patel has denied that and said through an interpreter that he didn't understand officers' orders because he doesn't speak English. Video of the encounter shows Patel turning to look at Parker while his hands are behind his back just before he is slammed onto the ground.
The neurosurgeon who treated Patel after the encounter said he suffered spinal trauma in the fall and he removed a vertebrae to make room for the man's spine.
Parker said the only takedown maneuver he was taught to use wouldn't have worked during the encounter because of the way he and Patel were standing. Parker denied sweeping his leg in front of Patel's to take the man down face first and said he slipped and fell while he was trying to take Patel to the ground.
"I know I did not try to kick his legs or anything like that. When I fell, we went down. That's what I know," Parker said. Prosecutors played a slowed-down and enlarged video of the takedown and said Patel wouldn't have fallen with such force if his legs weren't swept from beneath him.
"If I tried to sweep his legs, I would have stayed up and let him fall," Parker said. "I got him on the ground the fastest and best way I could."
Several of Parker's colleagues and supervisors said officers are expected to protect suspects' heads, necks and backs during takedowns and use of force should be proportional to the level of resistance an officer is faced with. Police have given contradicting testimonies on whether they considered the takedown necessary.
During closing arguments, Saeed Mody of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division said Parker had numerous opportunities to tell supervisors he fell while he was trying to control Patel's hands, but didn't mention that until his testimony.
Mody added that a recorded phone call between Parker and a dispatcher after the encounter suggested Parker was trying to bolster justification for the takedown afterward.
Dispatcher Angela Sharp was recorded asking Parker if he needed her to "stack" details that he could include in paperwork about the probable cause Parker used to justify detaining Patel. Sharp said she searched call data for reports of burglaries and breaking and entering.
"You don't ask for 'a bulls--t search' unless you know you did something wrong," Mody said, repeating the phrase Sharp was recorded saying to Parker. "He knew he used too much force, he knew it was on video."
Prosecutors and defense attorney Robert Tuten have agreed that a language barrier contributed to the situation. Tuten has said the incident was an escalation of police tactics, not a criminal offense. Tuten has argued Parker was justified based on the suspicious person call and Patel's behavior before the takedown.
"When you don't follow the orders of police officers and resist, things happen like this," Tuten said during closing arguments.
Tuten said police across the country are likely watching the outcome of the case, prompting Mody to object.
U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala sustained the objection and had Tuten continue without elaborating on how the verdict could be interpreted by law enforcement as they face heightened scrutiny concerning interactions with minorities.
Tuten said an officer's perception of a threat determines how and when force is applied and that showing respect for authority is at the heart of this case.