The FBI is investigating an incident in which an Indian grandfather’s encounter with police in Alabama left the man partially paralyzed. An officer involved in the incident is under arrest, and the police chief proposed that he be fired, police said Thursday.
A spokesman for the FBI said that the agency became involved shortly after the Feb. 6 incident, and it is being treated as a civil rights investigation. The findings will be turned over to the Justice Department for review.
Sureshbhai Patel had recently come to the United States from his farm in India to help care for his grandson, who was born prematurely and was suffering from health complications.
At about 9 a.m. on Friday in Madison, Ala., just days into his visit, Patel was strolling through his family’s neighborhood when he was approached by police. A neighbor had called authorities and told them a man who looked “suspicious” was peering into garages, according to the Huntsville Times. That man, police determined, was Patel.
Within minutes, the 57-year-old grandfather was face down on the ground with a severe neck injury that left him partially paralyzed.
A lawyer for Patel has filed a lawsuit against the Madison Police Department, alleging that his constitutional civil rights were violated and seeking damages. The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal district court.
“First, I’m hoping that the truth will come out, second that this case might bring to life the real issues we have in this country about the police abuse of power where someone can’t try to blame it on the victim,” Hank Sherrod, the family’s attorney, told The Washington Post. “Here we’ve got someone who is truly blameless and innocent. He was brutalized, and hopefully will, but may never, walk again.”
Representatives from the Indian government visited Patel in the hospital on Thursday, Sherrod said.
Madison Police Chief Larry Muncey told reporters Thursday that he has recommended termination for one of the officers involved in the incident. Officer Eric Parker, Muncey, said, has also turned himself in on charges of assault in the third degree.
The Madison police concluded from its investigation into the incident that the officer’s actions “did not meet the high standards and expectations” of his department, Muncey said. Muncey apologized to Patel, Patel’s family, and the community. The police chief added that the FBI was conducting a “parallel inquiry to ascertain if there were any federal violations.” He declined to answer any questions, citing the pending lawsuit.
The department also released portions of audio and video pertaining to the incident. In a non-emergency call to police, a neighbor described Patel as a “skinny black guy” and said that he’d “never seen him before” in the neighborhood. Patel, he said, was “just wandering around” and “walking close to the garage.” The caller added that he was following Patel at a distance. When asked to estimate his age, the caller guessed Patel was in his 30’s.
The neighbor also told the police dispatcher he was “nervous” leaving his wife because of Patel’s presence in the neighborhood.
Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said Friday that the government was “extremely disturbed” about the incident and had expressed its concern to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, and also planned talks with officials in Washington and Alabama.
“We take the incident involving an Indian national very seriously,” he said. “We want to make it abundantly clear we are extremely worried about what happened to Mr. Sureshbhai Patel, an Indian national.”
In an earlier statement, police said that Patel attempted to pull away from officers as he was being patted down, leading at least one officer to force him to the ground, “which resulted in injury.” Patel’s son, Chirag, told the Huntsville newspaper that police escalated the incident, not his father.
“He was just walking on the sidewalk as he does all the time,” said Chirag Patel, who arrived in the United States a decade ago to study engineering before getting married and becoming an American citizen. “They put him to the ground.”
“This is a good neighborhood. I didn’t expect anything to happen.”
Two videos of the incident later released by Madison police include both audio of the officers involved, and visuals of the exchange. In one video, a pair of officers approach Patel and ask him where he’s headed, what his address is, and request to see his ID. One officer says, “he’s saying ‘no English.’ ” The second officer continues to ask Patel questions, including “are you looking at houses and stuff?”
Sureshbhai Patel said he tried to tell the officers that he doesn’t speak English by saying “No English. Indian. Walking,” according to the lawsuit. He says he repeated his son’s house number and pointed toward the residence.
In the police video, an officer then tells Patel, “Do not jerk away from me again. If you do, I’m gonna put you on the ground.” The officer asks, “Do you understand?” and tells Patel to “relax.”
That’s when an officer twisted his arm behind his back, Patel said, and forced him to the ground, face-first. His face was bloodied, but worse, he also injured his neck and was left paralyzed in his arms and legs, the lawsuit alleges.
One of the two police videos shows the officer holding Patel forcefully, pushing him to the ground. Patel, on the ground, is then told to “chill out” by one of the officers. The officer tells a third, approaching officer that Patel doesn’t “speak a lick of English,” and that they were trying to pat him down. “I don’t know what his problem is, but he won’t listen,” one of the officers adds.
Patel remains on the ground as the officers call for medical assistance.
“Stand up, let’s go,” one officer says. “You’re all right.” For several minutes, the officers repeatedly attempt to get Patel off the ground and into a patrol car.
One officer asks, “He OK?”
Sherrod, the family’s attorney, said things went wrong as soon as a neighbor who didn’t recognize Patel called police and reported suspicious activity.
“This is broad daylight, walking down the street,” Sherrod told the Huntsville Times. “There is nothing suspicious about Mr. Patel other than he has brown skin.”
Sherrod said officers left Patel on the ground, injured and bloodied and in desperate need of a paramedic.
“This is just one of those things that doesn’t need to happen,” the attorney said. “That officer doesn’t need to be on the streets.”
Speaking to The Post after the Thursday press conference, Sherrod said that he “appreciates [the police] doing the right thing on Thursday,” but criticized the department for not acting sooner. “On Monday they were trying to blame Mr. Patel,” he added.
Patel underwent cervical fusion surgery to relieve pressure on his spinal cord and has regained some feeling in his arms and one leg. He remains partially paralyzed. His left leg is entirely or mostly paralyzed and he lacks grip strength in his arms, the lawsuit said.
A fund was established to help cover the cost of Patel’s medical care and a recovery that could take months. He does not have health insurance.
Patel’s son told the Times that before the incident, he was proud to own a home in Madison. He chose the community, he said, because of the educational opportunities the area would someday provide his son. Now, he said, he’s not so sure about his decision.
“It is a dream for me because I came from a very poor family and I worked so hard here,” he told the paper. “I’m totally devastated that I might have made a big mistake.”
[This post has been updated multiple times]