Minneapolis Police Sgt. David Clifford was charged Monday with third degree assault for allegedly punching a man unconscious for talking loud on his cell phone on a bar patio in Andover.
Cmdr. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County sheriff's office said Clifford remained in jail Monday and will make an initial court appearance on the felony charge Tuesday morning.
Brian Vander Lee was on the patio at Tanner's Station in Andover around 7 p.m. Saturday night when Sgt. David Clifford, at another table with his wife, asked him to be quiet. Vander Lee's friend Mike Archambault was on the other end of that phone conversation, and pulling into the parking lot of the bar, when the phone went dead.
"He did a Superman punch," Archambault said. "Brian went back, feet up in the air, and the guy landed on top of him and his head bounced off the concrete."
Archambault saw the attacker run off the patio as Vander Lee lay unconscious. Vander Lee was rushed to the nearest hospital where he underwent emergency surgery for bleeding on his brain.
With at least ten witnesses on the patio, including Vander Lee's wife Kourtney, investigators quickly learned the suspect was possibly a Minneapolis police officer.
"You are there to protect us and serve us," Kourtney said. "It doesn't make any sense."
At approximately 1:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Sgt. Clifford turned himself in to the Anoka County Jail with his lawyer by his side. Clifford made a statement to police and was booked into the jail.
Clifford told police he was at the bar to meet his wife and discuss National Night Out plans. He said he took offense to some language Vander Lee was using, and asked him to stop.
Vander Lee started using the language again a short time later, at which point Clifford confronted him. The officer told police he thought Vander Lee was going to hit him, and that's when he threw a punch.
Employees at Tanner's Station told police they didn't overhear any offensive language from Brian Vander Lee, and Sgt. Clifford admitted he could have gone to an employee instead of making a scene.
As for Brian, there's good news to report: he's responding to commands and wiggling his toes and fingers.
"We're hopeful, and he's a strong man and healthy and has good spirit and is a fighter," Kourtney said. "I think he'll pull through."
A benefit fund has been created to help the family of Brian Vander Lee with medical bills.
BRIAN VANDER LEE BENEFIT
DONATIONS ACCEPTED AT ANY TCF BANK LOCATION
According to Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. Bill Palmer, Sgt. Clifford has been a Minneapolis cop since 1993. In that time he has not had a single sustained disciplinary action against him.
Clifford has two Medal of Valor awards -- one of them for saving someone's life – and has been nominated for the Merit Award five times, and received the award twice. He's also served with the UN in Kosovo.
But in addition to the awards and recognition, FOX 9 also learned Sgt. Clifford was part of an excessive force lawsuit stemming from an arrest in April of 1995. According to court documents, Harry Lazover was waiting at a south Minneapolis bus stop at 4 a.m. when Officer Clifford stopped to question him. The two have very different descriptions of how or why the situation escalated.
Attorney Mick Spence represented Lazover during that lawsuit and was surprised to learn 15 years later the same officer is sitting in the Anoka County jail after being accused of throwing a single punch that caused a man to fall, hit his head on the concrete and require two brain surgeries.
"I was heart sick, I wish he would have learned that lesson the first time through," Spence said.
The city of Minneapolis and then-Officer Clifford won the lawsuit in the 90s, but Lazover appealed and won. A Court of Appeals judge determined the lawsuit needed a new trial because the judge gave inaccurate jury instruction.
On the first day of the second trial they settled and the city of Minneapolis paid Lazover $55,000.
"Mr. Clifford testified he indicated he knew hitting someone in the head was considered deadly force," Spence said.
Spence says he'll be watching Clifford's case closely.
"I'll be interested in watching it, and I hope all the law enforcement officers as well as citizens of this state pay attention to this case."