Brust: Stop blaming civilians for police brutality

Allec Brust

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in the following column are those of the writer only and do not necessarily represent the views of the Collegian or its editorial board.

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Nina Jenae Askew is not a violent woman.

The modern social issue that plagues America is not reserved to the tumultuous streets of Chicago or the neighborhoods of Ferguson. ‘Police brutality’ is a phrase that leaves the most unsavory taste in the mouths of Americans. For many, it is abstract, a story only tangible through the screens of our televisions or the shares on our Facebook. We are subject to this violence every day no matter what city we live in. Yet, we forget the reality of what abusing authority means to our community — a reality which Nina Askew has been battling for over a year.

On the night of January 16th, 2016, the 23-year-old University of Northern Colorado graduate student went home after a long shift at work. Despite her exhaustion, Askew perked up and agreed to go to a party with her boyfriend, Lavelle Sanders, and his cousin, Brian Berkley. After drinking one margarita, Askew, Sanders, and Berkley set off on a five minute walk to their friend’s party on 10th Ave. The trio walked carefully, as the alleyway was covered in a slick ice.

The night was normal for January. It was cold but the walk was short. The party went on as planned until being busted by Greeley Police just after midnight. The trio walked among the masses as cops directed party-goers through an alley in the direction of Sanders apartment. Askew, Sanders, and Berkeley struggled to hold their footing on the icy path, using each other for support as they walked. The group walked towards Sanders’ apartment before hearing an authoritative voice cut through the air.

“We heard cops yelling to stop,” Askew said. “There were probably about 50 people in the alley we were walking through, so we didn’t think they were talking to us.”

That was when the group was approached by Officer Ariel Maes. Maes was a young, small woman who had started working at the Greeley Police Department about five months prior to this date. Due to her stature, she had to wear a custom made ballistics vest in addition to her utility belt. Maes approached the group and asked if there was anything troubling happening. Officer Maes said she was worried, as it looked as though Sanders was acting abusively toward Askew.

“I came to the conclusion there was the possibility of a criminal act going on, and I needed to further investigate it,” Maes testified in court on March 6th.

Askew came to the defense of her boyfriend, saying if he had hurt her she would have notified the police already. Askew said it was the ice that was to blame for what the officer had seen, because right before Maes had approached, askew had slipped. It was at this time when Maes called for backup, and with the help of a male officer handcuffed Askew and put her under arrest.

“As we walked through the alley I just kept asking why I was being arrested,” Askew said. “They kept saying they did not have to tell me.”

As both Askew and the two officers approached the vehicle, all parties were slipping. Askew had limited mobility as her hands were handcuffed behind her back. The officers attempted to hoist Askew into the vehicle, but this limited mobility and the small stature of officer Maes made this an issue. The male officer went around to the other side of the car, reached into the back seat, grabbed Askew’s upper right arm, and pulled her into the vehicle. It was at this point Askew hear a loud “crack.” Askew fainted briefly because of the pain.

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When Askew regained her consciousness, her right arm was in intense pain and the officers were still pulling her into the vehicle.

“I started screaming,” Askew said. “They told me to shut up and do what I was supposed to do, and they shut the door.”

Askew was terrified and in pain. She knew she needed medical assistance immediately, so she began to kick at the door in an effort to communicate her need for medical attention. At this time, an officer opened the door and threatened to hog tie Askew before realizing her pain was not an attempt to escape or disrespect the officers. At this point, an ambulance was called.

Askew was brought to an ambulance and was examined with her handcuffs still holding both her hands behind her back. Medical examiners realized the extent of the injury when Askew’s right humorous nearly protruded through her skin. It was at this time she was taken to the hospital, and her handcuffs were finally taken off.

When Askew awoke in the hospital, she was told she needed to go into emergency surgery immediately, because the break was damaging her radial nerve. After undergoing emergency surgery, Askew was in the hospital for two days. Upon her release, she was immediately arrested.

“They arrested me on suspicion,” said Askew. “They gave off all these random charges like minor in possession, which just didn’t make since because I was 23 at the time.”

Askew was taken to jail immediately after leaving the hospital. Despite having a plate and screws in her arm, she was told to take her cast off and was not allowed to take any pain medication during her overnight stay in the county jail.

“I was in excruciating pain,” Askew said. “Not to mention they [the police] were roughing me up and taunting me as I walked through jail.”

It was not until after her night in jail when Askew was told what the charges were. Minor charges included resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Askew was also accused of second degree assault on a police officer, which is a felony.

Askew and her family were wrought with confusion. It was Nina who had to deal with massive bodily injury. It was Nina who had been arrested with no explanation. It was Nina who was faced with medical bills and limited use of her right arm, an injury she will deal with the rest of her life. Nobody could explain what was happening. Nobody could explain why Nina, a woman who had no prior charges, was now facing a life-changing felony charge.

Nobody was aware at this time that when Askew was being walked to the patrol unit on January 16th she had allegedly elbowed Officer Ariel Maes below her ballistics vest, causing some skeletal and muscular bruising. A story of a confused and mistreated woman arrested with no justification had spun full circle.

In a striking turn of events, Maes had become the victim of a felonious crime. She was allegedly attacked by a handcuffed Askew on a slippery alleyway. Askew’s recount of a blatant abuse of authority has come full circle. Askew now had to defend herself in court despite indisputable evidence that her arm was broken by a police officer. To be clear:, the woman whose arm was broken by a police officer was now being sued by that same officer. A trial would proceed, highlighting the injuries of officer Maes. The 5 foot 2 inches officer was allegedly elbowed by 5 foot 8 inches Askew between her utility belt and her ballistics vest. No physical evidence of the attack would be presented, because skeletal and muscular bruising does not show up on an X-ray or in photos.

The trial began on March 6th, 2017. Defended by Andy Gavaldon, Nina Askew fought tooth and nail to profess her innocence. The trial was riddled with “he said, she said” testimonies. So many questions were asked, but moral questions remained that span far beyond the reach of lawful power.

Askew was found guilty of resisting arrest, but not of disorderly conduct. However, the jury was unable to reach a decision regarding the felony, second-degree assault on an officer.

As I sat in the back row of the gallery throughout this case, the details seemed to become less and less important. The questions I wanted to ask were strictly non-judicial, but the true morality of the case was not being recognized. Nina Askew had her arm broken by a police officer. Nina Askew was arrested on unjustifiable charges. Nina Askew was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now her charges would be a constant reminder of what it means to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ariel Maes may or may not have been elbowed by Askew, but there is no room for doubt that the rights of the defendant were brutally neglected.

In Greeley, where Askew attends UNC’s graduate program, police brutality has been a pressing issue. According to Askew, her case is not a black sheep. Police injuring citizens, lying about intoxication, and blatantly abusing their power has been an issue in Greeley long before Askew’s case. Nina may not have found justice yet, but her goal is not to be vindictive towards police, but rather to bring attention to the issue of abuse of authority. She hopes her case will reach the greater Weld County community, and let the public know this issue is relevant. The first step is implementing a system that will be beneficial to everyone.

“I hope that [this case] will make Chief Gardner implement body and car cameras,” Askew said. “It’s necessary, and it helps both cops and civilians.”

Necessary measures have not been taken. For change to begin, it must be started by those with the most power to spark it. Police need to take necessary steps to ensure civilian safety. Police brutality is often a touchy subject that can be interpreted differently based on individual values. However, when a woman who got her arm broken by an authority faces three felony charges, interpretation regarding police brutality is ridiculous. Nina Askew is a reminder that police have the authority to marginalize citizens through obvious abuse of authority. Nobody injured wrongly by the government should pay this heavily for potentially elbowing someone.

Car and body camera policies have been adopted by neighboring cities including Fort Collins. Body Worn Cameras (BWCs) are worn by Fort Collins police officers to attain an unbiased view of any event. Police brutality has made itself a motif in our history; a motif that can be halted by the perpetrators themselves. Accountability comes first. Citizens should not live in fear of the institution meant to protect them, and since that is the reality, it is the duty of law enforcement to take the necessary steps to ensure our safety. It is not a matter of choosing sides. There are always exception in both parties that make us want to choose. However there is no reason to doubt that change should be sparked at the source.

Nina Askew’s trial is a reminder that some situations could have been resolved if there were one additional factor. If an officer had footage of what happened on January 17th, there would have been clarity for both sides. If no major change is to come any time soon, then small changes should be made on step at a time. Nina Askew is not a violent woman. Her story was heard but not seen, and it very well could have been.

Allec Brust can be reached at letters@collegian.com and online at @allecbrust