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2 Black Men Sue Des Moines Police for Illegal Search, Racial Profiling

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Two young black men filed a lawsuit Friday alleging that they were racially profiled by two white Des Moines police officers who pulled over their car for no apparent reason and handcuffed one of them while searching the vehicle without a warrant or probable cause.

The stop and search were captured on squad car and body camera video, which has been viewed more than 9 million times since being released to a public advocacy group on Aug. 15 and posted online. It shows Officer Kyle Thies take an aggressive tone from the outset, telling the driver, 23-year-old Montray Little, to get out of the car or he’d go to jail and then handcuffing him even though Little was fully cooperating.

Iowa traffic stop lawsuit

Montray Little raises his hands as he’s questioned by officer Kyle Thies. (Video Screenshot)

As Thies searches the car, Officer Natalie Heinemann questions 21-year-old passenger Jared Clinton. The search found nothing and the men were eventually allowed to drive away.

Clinton’s mother, Laural Clinton, said she cried when she saw the video. She said she’s taught her sons to empty their hands and comply with police orders.

“I thank God my son listened. He made it home that night, but I just really felt they were trying to provoke him in a negative manner that could have endangered his life,” she said.

Little and Clinton’s attorney, Gina Messamer, said Friday that they’re suing the police department and the city of Des Moines, which already faces several lawsuits alleging constitutional violations against citizens, including several cases in which officers acted violently but were permitted to remain on the force.

The lawsuit, which names Thies, Heinemann, police Chief Dana Wingert and the city, alleges that the plaintiffs’ civil rights were violated, that they were illegally searched and that the police engaged in illegal racial profiling.

It names Wingert and the city for “failing to monitor and address racially-disproportionate actions taken by City of Des Moines police officers and “failing to adopt a system to identify, track, and monitor problematic police behavior and patterns of unconstitutional conduct.”

Bridget Fagan-Reidburn, an organizer with the group that obtained the videos, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said police records show that Thies arrested 236 people last year. She said 49 percent of the people he arrested were black, in a city where blacks make up slightly more than 10 percent of the population.

“We can’t let this style of policing continue,” said Fagan-Reidburn, whose group focuses on civil rights, immigration and environmental issues. “We need a policing system that builds relationships with our communities, not tears them apart.”

Police spokesman Sgt. Paul Parizek said the department is conducting an administrative review of the stop and others by Thies to see if allegations of racial profiling are founded.

“It’s a serious allegation and it’s something we’re looking into,” Parizek said. “You can’t tell by looking at one video that it’s racial profiling. There are a lot of different things going on there.”

He said police have received 34 complaints from the neighborhood about activity in the park that Little and Clinton were leaving when the officers stopped them, and that the officers “didn’t just select that car because of the occupants.”

Des Moines City Councilman Josh Mandelbaum said the videos are troubling, but that he wouldn’t discuss them further until the police department reports on its internal investigation.

“I think we need to take citizen concerns seriously and we constantly need to be working to improve throughout what we do in the city,” he said.

Des Moines police already face several lawsuits relating to the way officers have treated citizens.

A man in 2013 ended up with broken teeth and injuries to his face, back, ribs, legs, and testicles at the hands of off-duty officers including Greg Wessels who has been reprimanded and suspended several times for inappropriate behavior, court documents show.

A federal court trial is scheduled for November.

In a separate case, Charles Edward Young, a black 63-year-old Army veteran, sustained cracked ribs after officer Cody Grimes attacked him in a 2016 incident in his own apartment after he’d called police for help evicting unwanted guests.

Grimes was fired in 2014 after he choked his girlfriend and threw her down a flight of stairs and was charged with domestic abuse. However, he was reinstated in 2015 after a civil service commission concluded the firing was too severe a punishment.

A federal civil trial for his attack on Young is set to begin in December.

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