Pastor's trauma at police hands: another racial injustice? Court to decide

Dateline: Tue 04 Aug 2009

Like most Michigan drivers, Ronnie L. Norris was accumstomed to the endless road repairs on beaten-down sections of I-75, the interstate that runs through Detroit and connects the state, north to south.

On the evening of April 5, 2007 -- "Maundy Thursday," he recalls, three days before Easter Sunday -- the African Methodist Episcopal pastor and Indiana native climbed into his 2006 Jeep Liberty in Downtown Detroit. He had spent part of the day at his church, Vernon AME Chapel in Downtown Detroit, and the rest of the time running errands. He was finally headed home to Sterling Heights by way of I-75.

His first destination was a Target near Sterling Heights, the fourth largest city in Michigan and part of the metro area north of Detroit. His wife Karen was employed at the store; she made advertising signs.

Norris, 60 years old and now living in North Vernon, Indiana, recalls just this much of his trip with any clarity: "I got on I-75, and there was some construction, so I had to go south to go north. I headed south, then the first opportunity I had to turn around, I did. That's when I hit a very large chuckhole."

When his Jeep plowed into that hole, Norris says, "it messed up my tire -- the tire blew. The last thing I remember happening is that I lost control of the vehicle."

He regained consciousness in the back of a police car dispatched from Lincoln Park, a small city, 93 percent white population, southwest of Detroit. Norris, who is black, believes the Lincoln Park area's "whiteness" may have influenced what happened to him that night.

In pain and shock, Norris did not learn the official police version until hours later -- not until his wife arrived at midnight at the hospital, where he was eventually taken after first being delivered to the Lincoln Park police station.

According to the LP police account, the pastor of 22 years and grandfather of three had driven for some miles on the rim of his tire at a high rate of speed, 80 to 90 mph. When he finally stopped his vehicle and police approached him, with guns drawn, they said he was in a "zombie-like state,"  with his hands frozen to the steering wheel.

A police dog helped to remove Norris from the car, and he was then held down by police and two civilians, passing truck drivers. There is no dispute that he was beaten on his head and body, and he received numerous bites from police dogs. Puncture wounds covered his neck, his torso and his legs. One dog bite near his ankle was deep enough to require seven stitches. He still has scars, teeth marks and a fear of dogs.

Lincoln Park Police Department officers had the confused, bruised and bleeding man in custody. They were not in a listening mode. Nor did they seem to care that the key ring they had torn from his ignition and thrown onto the ground contained a MEDIC ALERT medallion, or that his wallet bore papers explaining that he was subject to epileptic seizures and on anti-seizure medication.

Norris says, "I came to in the back seat of the police car. There was a lady police officer there. I said, 'Where are you taking me?' and she said, 'You'll find out.' ...I said I was a pastor, but they accused me of being a drug dealer," recalls Norris. "They said they had a warrant out for me."

That the police were very badly mistaken on so many counts was proven in a court of law Nov. 27, 2007.

That's when a Detroit jury returned a "not guilty" verdict on charges against Norris --  charges that were not filed until August, five months after his accident: one count of resisting and opposing arrest and  two counts of assaulting police. The jury deliberated 12 minutes before they returned to the Wayne County courtroom. In trial notes, the judge admonished the prosecutor, writing that the incident "should never have been brought to trial," says Norris.

But this case is far from over. Norris -- who now works as a counselor at Camp Atterbury in Columbus -- is suing the Lincoln Park Police Department for $3.3 million in damages. His file reads like an instructional manual for police officers in what not to do: Lincoln Park police never let Norris call an attorney, they produced no video evidence that he was driiving erratically or over the speed limit, they have refused to expunge from his record the misinformation that there was a warrant out for him, and, despite his injuries, they never called an ambulance to the scene of the accident.

Norris, who grew up in the small Southern Indiana town of Paoli, is almost philosophical about what happened. He speaks calmly and without any noticeable rancor -- what one might expect for a pastor of 22 years in the AME church.

"I never had a problem with police until this situation," says Norris, a graduate of three institutions of higher learning --  Northwood University in French Lick, Oakland City University and Christian Bible College in Rocky Mountain, N.C. "I never had anything in my life more than a traffic ticket."

The money sought for damages, says Norris, really is not important -- it is not the issue.

More than anything, he and his attorney Daniel J. Reid of Detroit are hoping to expose what they believe is a far too common practice, one that, some believe, again made news when respected Harvard professor, a black man, was arrested by an equally respected white police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, in Cambridge, Mass.

"The fact is, I was racially profiled," says Norris. "I was beaten, and I was held down by civilians...and the police...acted inappropriately."

That's a pastor's polite way of describing the trauma, the attitude of a man raised in small and safe town in Indiana, where respect is respected.

Attorney Reid is more direct:

"This was police brutality," he says. "We have pictures, we have documents. They used him in a tug of war, with two truck drivers, these two civilians, who stopped to help the police. It was completely ridiculous. It was absurd."

So is the aftermath, and then some. Since the incident, Norris says he suffers from nightmares and classic post-traumatic stress symptoms; his wife also has been affected, he says. He was unable to return to church immediately after the incident. Ultimately, his work as a pastor in Detroit came to an end.

"People in his church were concerned. They were disgruntled, as people in churches sometimes are. He was displaced as a pastor," says Reid, an attorney for 30 years who also is a former  AME pastor. A later church assignment in Minneapolis also did not work out. "He was affected there as well," says Reid.

"A preacher of a church was charged with a felony," says Reid. "What happened to him was very traumatic."

Reid and Norris will go to court next Aug. 28. The Lincoln Park Police Department has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Reid is optimistic that the case will proceed forward.

BACKSTORY: Former Indianapolis News and Indianapolis Star reporter and award-winning columnist Marcella Fleming and her husband, author Brian D. Smith, a magazine writer for many years, also a dear friend, tipped me to this story. Marcella grew up in Paoli, and she has known the Norris family all her life. She and Brian were married by Ronnie Norris.

It is their hope -- and mine, too -- that bigger media outlets than this small blog will investigate Norris' case and write about it, and that media in Detroit and beyond will take an interest.

And why do any of us do this? We're not being paid for the legwork; we're not parties to the lawsuit. But, as we used to say at the newspaper, the job is "to tell good stories." This is a "good" story, because what happened to Ronnis Norris is important and deserves our time and attention. Let's hope others who are still paid a living wage to write will see that, too, and have the time to dig.

One last thought: I have not contacted the LP Police Department, and that is not an oversight -- I siimply have run out of time tonight. I plan to do so, and I will write about their response as well.











George Stuteville [unverified] said:

A disturbing story, but good to know that Marcella and Brian tipped you on it. I don't know what I'd have done without Marcella's counsel during my last year at The Star. She is a gifted writer and a great person.

2009-08-05 14:58:12

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

This case, and countless more, both told and untold, are proof positive that racial profiling hurts all of us.

I am hoping all turns out well for this victim. He has an excellent case.

2009-08-05 16:18:50

indykjsharp [Member] said:

Go, Ruth!

2009-08-05 19:19:14

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

As much as some would like to believe it is not so, racism is still thriving in this country. I saw enough of it in Indiana during the last presidential election to make me want to hurl.

Kudos to my longtime friends Brian and Marcella for bringing this story to Ruth's attention. Kudos to Ruth for blogging about it.

2009-08-05 21:01:57

hendy [Member] said:

A great report on a horrible incident.

We still have a problem, however-- how does one constrain the constrainers? The deeply rooted problem occurs because of cop-tribal behavior. It's us, the public, against them. If you're of color, or have another characteristic to anchor bias, you're in deeper trouble.

What education, what regimen, what productive methods can be used to stop profiling? How do you stop reactive violence when the public is so very violent? The deeper issues aren't seen in the fog of what we abhor in the story-- told very well, BTW.

2009-08-07 08:55:36

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

Good points, Hendy.

In America, we see many people embracing "all cops are bad" or "all cops are wonderful" blanket generalizations about police officers.

We need to have more in-depth public conversation about the two questions you raised:

"What education, what regimen, what productive methods can be used to stop profiling? How do you stop reactive violence when the public is so very violent?"

We don't hear these kinds of questions often being discussed outside of the parameters of generalizations and stereotypes.

2009-08-07 14:08:10

ruthholl [Member] said:

I'd like to hear from police on this, but I believe profiling is still considered a valid law enforcement tool. A former state policeman, now an attorney, told me profiling works: black males commit a disproportionate amount of crimes, so they are naturally going to be suspects (so goes the logic). You put a black male in a mostly white community, and you get Driving While Black.
Best story about this was the state trooper, also from Indiana, arrested in Carmel (DWB). He filed a lawsuit. That needs to happen more often. So my hat is off to Mr. Norris and his attorney and supporters: bring attention to this practice. It won't stop it, but it may make some officers more sensitive to nuances...which I think is what you guys are talking about.

2009-08-07 15:18:27

Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

Profiles and stereotypes are like cliches: there's enough substantiation to make them true, some if not most of the time.

If as you point out black males commit a disproportionate number of crimes, law enforcement is going to look harder at them than at whites.

Statistics create stereotypes. Stereotyping begat profiling.
Blame the numbers if you don't care for profiling. Clearly the process is sometimes abused. But that doesn't invalidate it.

2009-08-07 15:44:06

hendy [Member] said:

Following those thoughts, lets tag Jews with little stars on their chests. Perhaps those garlicky Italians might be mob members or worse-- Teamsters.

I understand actuarial tables, and why. But using this logic to insist black males are statistically more guilty is to ignore the subjugation of non-white races in this country, and to believe that we're not all individuals that are worthy of a dignified life.

There is no social justice in profiling. We all must be treated the same regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, or even gender preference. These concepts are the law, and that's what we're enforcing here. Without the rule of law, there's chaos.

That said, I know over 100 lawyer jokes. Let's not go there.

2009-08-07 15:52:18

james [unverified] said:

Am I the only wondering why a guy who was prone to seizures was driving in the first place? Not trying to blame the victim here, but isn't that one of the things that should make you forbidden to drive?

There but for the grace of God, he could be the one being sued right now.

2009-08-07 16:14:02

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