Minneapolis SWAT team leader found guilty in bar assault

A Minneapolis police SWAT team leader was convicted Saturday of assaulting a man while off-duty at a bar.

An Anoka County District Court jury decided that Sgt. David Clifford was not acting in self-defense when he punched Brian Vander Lee, 44, on June 16 at Tanners Station in Andover. Jurors found Clifford, 48, guilty of first-, third- and fifth-degree assault.

"It's just a very sobering moment when a police officer is convicted of a crime, but we felt we had to pursue justice," Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said after the verdict.

Clifford will be sentenced May 29. A seven-year sentence is recommended under Minnesota sentencing guidelines, Palumbo said.

The incident was captured on a dark and sometimes grainy surveillance video. Clifford testified he approached Vander Lee, who was sitting at the next table, and told him to curb his loud and abusive language.

He and his attorney, Fred Bruno, claimed throughout the two-week trial that Vander Lee, who was drunk, then stood up, cocked his left arm and attempted to throw a punch. Clifford reacted with a right, and Vander Lee fell backward and cracked his head against the outdoor patio floor. Vander Lee later needed three brain surgeries.

Closing arguments concluded Friday and the jury deliberated for several hours.

Bruno did not immediately respond to requests for comment made Saturday afternoon.

Assistant Anoka County Attorney Blair Buccicone said he called Vander Lee immediately after the verdict and described him as "emotional."

"He's always just wanted it over. If you think about it, your whole life changes, you're thrown into the public eye, there's a video," Buccicone said. "Some of the things that were being said about him on message boards and things like that were just awful. He just feels relief. He hasn't been vindictive at all."

On the Minneapolis police Facebook page, Police Chief Janee Harteau released a statement calling the situation tragic for everyone involved.

"The actions of David Clifford, although off-duty at the time of the altercation, are not consistent with our department core values and high standards," Harteau wrote.