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Schenectady police officer's body camera footage paints broader picture of altercation

Schenectady police officer's body camera footage paints broader picture of altercation

Story includes the officer's body camera footage
Schenectady police officer's body camera footage paints broader picture of altercation
A still from Officer Brian Pommer's body camera
Photographer: Schenectady Police Department

SCHENECTADY — Body camera footage released by city police on Wednesday paints a fuller portrait of the arrest that saw a city police officer kneel on a suspect’s neck area and punch him a half-dozen times before taking him into custody on Monday. 

The video appears to reveal few revelations that will dramatically reshape understanding of the altercation between Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud, who was suspected of slashing his neighbor’s tires, and a patrolman formally identified by city police Wednesday as Officer Brian Pommer.

Footage does, however, contradict Gaindarpersaud’s claim that he simply walked away upon being confronted by Pommer, clearly revealing he ran away when confronted outside of his North Brandywine Avenue home. 

Officer Brian Palmer's body camera footage released by the Schenectady Police Department Wednesday:

But police have declined to release a critical segment of footage, in-car video detailing Gaindarpersaud’s transport to city police headquarters following his apprehension.

Gaindarpersaud contends he lost consciousness, while city Police Chief Eric Clifford claims he did not. 

The clip also doesn’t appear to definitely illustrate if Pommer’s knee was on Gaindarpersaud's neck, as Gaindarpersaud claims, or his head, as Clifford contends. 

SUSPECT RAN 

Pommer, a seven-year veteran of the department, initially responded to a call of a neighborhood dispute over slashed tires. 

The neighbor, whose identity was blurred out, claims Gaindarpersaud slashed his tires, an activity allegedly captured by his home surveillance network. 

Pommer confronted Gaindarpersaud outside of his residence and told him he was a suspect. 

“We have it on camera,” Pommer said. “They don’t want to press charges right now.” 

Gaindarpersaud crossed his arms. 

“I don’t care what they wanna do because I don’t know what you're talking about,” he said. “Bring that camera and show it to me.” 

Pommer told Gaindarpersaud to turn around and place his hands behind his back. While he initially began to comply, he turned around and took off running down his driveway once Pommer reached out.

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The officer called for backup and, following a brief pursuit, he tackled Gaindarpersaud, and the pair struggled on the concrete. 

Gaindarpersaud continued to demand evidence, while Pommer repeatedly told him to put his hands behind his back.

At one point when he was not moving, Pommer punched Gaindarpersaud six times as he was curled into a fetal position. 

And the footage appeared to reveal his knee was interchangeably on both Gaindarpersaud's head and neck, a technique that was banned in the city last month alongside chokeholds.

Following a brief struggle, two officers arrived, assisted in detaining Gaindarpersaud and led him down the driveway, where he briefly tussled with officers. 

Gaindarpersaud struggled again after being led to the patrol car, where he was subdued before being placed into the vehicle. 

Footage then ended. 

Police declined to verify the identity of the two responding officers, citing the ongoing investigation, but body camera tags identified them as “mweekes” and “higgins." 

Clifford has defended Pommer’s actions, noting Gaindarpersaud both “actively and passively” resisted arrest, and that at no point was his breathing or blood circulation compromised.

But activists and civil rights groups say while Gaindarpersaud was not fatally injured, the altercation parallels the sequence of events that led to the death of George Floyd, who died in May after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, igniting national and international protests over complaints of systemic racism and police brutality.

City police released the footage on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m., opting to use CDs owing to the large file sizes.

Joining the four minute, 30-second clip of the altercation was a second segment, a 25-minute clip detailing events that took place before the altercation, including Pommer’s interview with the neighbor, who said he didn’t want to press charges and simply wanted restitution and for Gaindarpersaud to leave him alone.

Pommer indicated he wanted to come to an amicable situation, and at one point strategized at how to approach Gaindarpersaud’s residence. 

“I love to kick down everyone’s door for everything, because it makes my job more fun, but I can’t -- then I’d get fired,” Pommer told the neighbor. 

Gaindarpersaud, who has denied slashing his neighbor’s tires, defended his actions on Wednesday. 

When told the newly-released footage contradicted his claim that he did not run away, Gaindarpersaud stuck by his account.

“I turned around and walked away,” Gaindarpersaud said Wednesday evening. “When he kept coming behind me, I kept walking faster -- and then he jumped on me.”

Gaindarpersaud was ultimately charged with criminal mischief and resisting arrest, both misdemeanors, court records show. 

City police said they're looking into releasing footage of the in-car video as the investigation continues.

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POSSIBLE WRAP COMING FRIDAY

An internal probe by the city Police Department is ongoing, but may be completed as early as Friday, said Mayor Gary McCarthy, who declined further comment.

“I’m reserving my comments until the final conclusion of the review,” McCarthy said.

District Attorney Robert Carney and City Council President John Mootooveren also declined comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

An initial 23-second clip shot by Gaindarpersaud’s father and posted to social media Monday sparked instant outrage and a protest outside city police headquarters, where the Gaindarpersauds spoke and addressed a crowd of roughly 100 people.

The Daily Gazette first reported on Tuesday the existence of the longer nine-minute clip revealing Pommer punching Gaindarpersaud.

Clifford didn't directly address those actions in his lengthy response issued Tuesday night.

Schenectady NAACP and the county Human Rights Commission echoed calls for an investigation and questioned why city police continued to use such tactics despite the prolonged national discussion over police brutality and use of excessive force. 

“The mere fact that we have to continue to speak on this issue, after new legislation signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and an executive order signed by Mayor Gary McCarthy to ban chokeholds of any kind, is completely unacceptable,” said Omar McGill, acting chairman of the county Human Rights Commission.

McGill, speaking personally and not on behalf of the commission, said the lack of leadership and vocal support of the Black Lives Matter movement by McCarthy and other city officials gives officers the tacit approval that concerns raised by activists shouldn’t be taken seriously.

“It shows he’s not really committed or standing with the people," McGill said. 

McCarthy responded, “I think my individual record is quite clear in terms of my advocacy within the community."

City police said they met with Schenectady NAACP, one member of the Civilian Police Review Board, community leaders and City Council members on Wednesday afternoon prior to releasing the footage. 

The footage also sparked a verbal skirmish between Clifford and U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, who questioned the department’s methods. 

“It is impossible to build trust with this kind of violence ongoing, especially for those peace officers who do serve and protect with integrity,” Tonko wrote on Twitter. “We need answers, those responsible need to be held accountable.”

Clifford shot back, also on Twitter, that Tonko “rushed to judgment without waiting for the facts or even calling me or our mayor to discuss.”

“Our leaders need to be better than this,” he said.

The city’s use of force policy contains over a dozen factors for an officer to consider when applying force, including the seriousness of the suspected offense, proximity of weapons, “degree to which the individual has been effectively restrained” and whether the conduct of the suspect “no longer reasonably appears to pose an imminent threat to the officer.”  

Professor Gregory Gilbertson, a former Georgia police officer and expert on use of force policies, reviewed the footage shot by Gaindarpersaud’s father and questioned if a suspected property crime warranted such an outsized response.

“The force is disproportionate to the crime that’s been committed,” Gilbertson, who is a professor at Centralia College in Centralia, Wash., said. “When the guy took off running, he should have let him go. Quite honestly, I don’t understand why he didn’t pepper spray the guy.”

Gilbertson said it appeared Pommer’s knee was on his neck and head interchangeably.

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He also wondered why Pommer’s first instinct was to take Gaindarpersaud into custody after the suspect demanded to see footage, not engage in de-escalation techniques.

Pommer, Gilbertson said, could have simply issued a citation or filed a report. Or he could have called for backup beforehand after observing Gaindarpersaud was acting standoffish.

“Before he puts a hand on him, he has an obligation to inform him that he’s under arrest and give him the opportunity to peacefully submit to an arrest,” Gilbertson said.

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