Did Portland’s finest go overboard in the Old Port?
By Noah Bruce
Sunday morning, Aaron Putnam woke up with bruises on his face, a black and blue knee, and no feeling in his thumb.
12 were arrested outside the Better End Saturday night.
Did he get himself embroiled in a nasty bar fight the night before?
You could say that.
You could also say that he was arrested, cuffed so tightly he suffered nerve damage to his hand, clubbed in the knee, and punched repeatedly in the face by Portland’s finest.
Following a melee that broke out in front of the Old Port bar the Better End, police have received complaints from seven or eight of the 12 individuals arrested, and police chief Michael Chitwood has referred the case to internal affairs. According to Captain Russell Gauvin of the Portland Police Department this is standard procedure whenever someone makes an allegation of police misconduct.
A number of eyewitnesses were on hand when the altercation occurred. Mike Phillips, the head bouncer at the Better End, says the ruckus started around 1 a.m. when two men refused to leave the bar at closing time. The situation escalated when the pair started throwing punches at Phillips’s coworker, Miguel Torres. The bouncers were able to push the two men out of the bar, but they would not leave the doorway, claiming they had left a jacket inside. While other Better End employees held the door shut, the two bouncers attempted to find the jacket. If they had found it, Phillips thinks that the two men might have left and the pandemonium that followed might have been avoided.
Instead, according to Phillips, four officers arrived on the scene and began questioning the two men. The officers started pushing the men with their billy clubs when one of the men fell, says Phillips. That, eyewitnesses say, is when the scene went live.
Phillips says the officers began kicking and punching one of the men and did not stop after they had him in handcuffs. The man’s friend tried to protect him, and the cops handcuffed and beat him as well, Phillips says. Around this time, about 15 more officers arrived.
Putnam was among the 50 or 75 people who had recently left the bar and were watching the show. When he saw the police using what he considered to be excessive force, he began to yell at the police.
“They were beating the hell out of him,” says Putnam. “There were probably four policemen on this one guy and one had his knee on the guy’s head. Then they started punching him and a female cop walked over and started hitting him on the legs with a telescoping club. So I got pissed and I started yelling ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I was trying to get their attention so they would leave the guy alone.”
He succeeded in getting their attention.
“I remember one of them coming at me,” he says. “The next thing I remember, I was on the ground. I got maced so I couldn’t see what was happening, but I felt them punching me in the face and clubbing me on the legs.”
“That guy got it the worst,” says Phillips about Putnam.
Putnam says that he was hit around eight times in the face after he was put in the paddy wagon.
By then the violence had escalated. People in the crowd were yelling at the police and according to Captain Gauvin, some tried to pull people in custody away from them while others tried to grab the officers’ nightclubs.
Phillips, however, asserts that “nobody raised their hands against the cops.”
At this point someone in the crowd threw a snowball at the police — bad call.
According to Phillips this is when they charged the crowd. He says the police were trying to clear the area by yelling, “Get the fuck out of the way!” but between the police vehicles, the crowd, the officers, and snowbanks from the storm Saturday night, it was difficult for people to leave the scene.
Mike Hersey agrees. He was on hand, watching, but when he saw the snowball and the advancing officers, he decided it was time to leave. As he and a friend began walking away, an officer pushed Hersey’s friend into him. As he struggled to remain standing, Hersey looked up to see a police officer charging him with a raised club.
“Out of instinct I grabbed the club,” says Hersey. “I was screaming ‘Stop! I didn’t do anything! Stop!’ Then two other cops tackled me. I put my hands behind my back to show that I wasn’t fighting. They cuffed me and then punched me three times in the face. I turned my head to the left to avoid the blows. Then they maced me and put me in the back of the paddy wagon.”
Phillips says he saw police officers attacking men and women. “One girl was telling the cops to leave her friend alone,” he says. “So three of them grabbed her and jacked her against the bar’s glass window, then they maced her and hit her in the legs with their clubs. The girl weighed about 100 pounds.”
The 12 individuals arrested were charged with everything from assault and rioting, to obstructing the public way and disorderly conduct.
Captain Gauvin says the internal affairs investigation could take a “a month or two” because there are many witnesses and officers who need to be interviewed. The results of the investigation are public, but the process is not, he says.
Phillips, who has seen his share of rough brawling in his 10 years of bouncing, says he has “never seen anything like this before.” “These people were just trying to leave my bar to avoid the melee and they got beat,” he says.