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Cop keeps job after brutal restaurant attack leaves victim in critical condition

Published time: June 27, 2012 21:04
Edited time: June 28, 2012 01:04
Brian Vander Lee, 43, of Ramsey, lies in a hospital bed after he was allegedly punched by an off-duty Minneapolis police sergeant and SWAT officer on Saturday night. (Photo Mike Archambault)

Brian Vander Lee, 43, of Ramsey, lies in a hospital bed after he was allegedly punched by an off-duty Minneapolis police sergeant and SWAT officer on Saturday night. (Photo Mike Archambault)

A Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer with a history of violence is out of jail and on paid home assignment after allegedly beating a man into critical condition while off the clock.

Sgt. David Clifford is still on the force even after the man he pummeled nearly two weeks earlier remains hospitalized. Brian Vander Lee, 43, has received two separate brain surgeries after an altercation with the 47-year-old Minneapolis Police SWAT Unit officer earlier this month almost ended in tragedy.

According to multiple eyewitness accounts, both men were sitting at separate tables on the outdoor patio of an Andover, MI eatery on June 16 when the officer left his seat to speak up because, as he tells investigators, he "took offense to some language" that Vander Lee was using.

"The other patrons and the manager who was visible on video said they didn't hear anything like that," Cmdr. Paul Sommer, spokesman for the Anoka county sheriff's office, tells Pioneer Press.

When Vander Lee stood up, Clifford admits to striking the man, assuming he was about to be hit himself. That blow was enough to knock Vander Lee backwards, hitting his head on the concrete patio. Once transported to Mercy Hospital, he was placed on life support.

Today, Vander Lee remains hospitalized but is finally breathing on his own. Sgt. Clifford is also doing much better, too: Mike Vander Lee, the brother of the victim, says the officer had no problem posting $15,000 bail. Pioneer Press adds that Clifford was initially arrested on suspicion of first- and third-degree assault but was charged only with third-degree assault. He’s now on paid duty from the confines of his own home.

Minneapolis police spokesman Bill Palmer adds to the Associated Press that the department has begun an internal investigation.

"It just seems awful lenient to me," Mike Vander Lee tells the paper. "It seems more like a slap on the hand than anything; makes you wonder if the whole thing is going to be a slap on the hand when my brother is laid up here after two brain surgeries."

Under the terms of Clifford’s release, he is not allowed to have contact with the victim or his wife and is barred from consuming alcohol. Blair Buccicone, the Anoka County prosecutor, tells the AP that alcohol was a factor. Answering a request for comment from the paper, however, Buccicone is refraining from saying much more.

"Alcohol was a factor, let's leave it at that," the prosecutor says.

Clifford’s attorney tells reporters that the entire incident has been blown out of proportion.

"The commander up there in Anoka County pretty much had my guy tried and convicted before everything came out. I'm not real happy about that," lawyer Fred Bruno tells KMSP out of Minneapolis. "It didn't come out that this guy was highly intoxicated, might have been involved in a punch fest with his brother in front of the patrons there."

In the end it will be up to a jury to decide if the actions were uncalled for or not. Clifford will appear in court next on July 19 to hear about the charge of third degree assault. It will be up to the justice to give the go ahead to allow information about the defendant’s past in the trial, which could end up playing a major role: Clifford was sued for using excessive force while on patrol in 1995 for allegedly hitting a man in the head with a flashlight — the city settled to the tune of $55,000. As recently as 2010, however, Clifford was making headlines again: that time he was sued after a woman suffered third-degree burns after Clifford’s SWAT team struck her with a flash0bang stun grenade during a botched raid. That time his actions cost the city $1 million.

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