Waterloo paid to silence a black teen pushed down by a cop
A black teenager who was shown on video getting thrown down by a white police officer in Iowa received thousands of dollars to keep quiet about a settlement including a secrecy provision that may violate state law.
After resolving his federal lawsuit for $95,000, the city of Waterloo negotiated an extra $5,000 payment to Malcolm Anderson last month in exchange for guarantees that the 19-year-old and his attorney would not have any press conferences, make any disclosures to civil rights groups or ever mention the deal on social media. The Associated Press obtained the confidentiality agreement from the city under the Iowa open records law.
Critics say it may be illegal for an Iowa government agency to demand confidentiality and goes against the public interest.
"The people of Waterloo should be troubled that the city is paying $5,000 to Malcolm Anderson just to allow the government to try to remain silent about the police officer's mistreatment of him," said Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. "Iowa law clearly does not allow secret settlements by government. Such secrecy is not in the best interests of government. It interferes with a full and frank discussion by the public and city officials of the police officer's actions that led to the litigation and $95,000 settlement."
Whenever a state or local government agency in Iowa reaches a legal settlement, the document and a summary of the dispute "shall be a public record" under Iowa law. The Iowa Attorney General's Office has long advised government agencies that "in government, settlements are not secret."
After Waterloo settled with Anderson, the AP requested the agreement. The city instead released a summary of the $100,000 deal that didn't mention confidentiality. The city later released two documents — one settlement and one confidentiality agreement — after AP renewed its request for the actual records.
The agreement acknowledges the city must release the amount paid to Anderson upon request under the law but says that the parties will not offer any additional comment and keep "its terms secret and confidential."
City Attorney David Zellhoefer, who signed the agreement, declined comment Wednesday. But Waterloo Police Chief Daniel Trelka said this month that he wanted to avoid discussion of questionable police conduct in the city of 68,000, which has Iowa's largest percentage of African-Americans at 16 percent but an overwhelmingly white police force.
"Simply talking about it inflames tension between certain groups, which is a pity, because so much progress has been made in this community," Trelka told KXEL. "People want to focus on the negative issues that are in the news and sadly the negative news does sell. I wish we could focus on what's been accomplished."
Anderson was 17 in June 2014, when he discovered an injured acquaintance on a street corner and took him to Allen Memorial Hospital for treatment of stab wounds. Officers sought to question Anderson but he said he knew nothing about the stabbing.
Anderson was speaking with his mother on a payphone, when officers hung up the call and insisted he come with them to the police station. After Anderson said he would not go voluntarily because he was not under arrest, officer Mark Nissen told him that "you are now, for the cigarettes." Nissen cited him for possessing tobacco as a minor for passing a pack of cigarettes between others in the waiting room, a charge that was later dismissed.
Video captured by freelance journalist Myke Goings shows Nissen walking Anderson toward a squad car, restraining the teen's arms behind his back. With no apparent provocation, Nissen throws Anderson to the concrete sidewalk face first outside the front door of the emergency room. Officers chat as Anderson is on the ground with his face down.
Police accused Anderson of fighting with officers but a judge dismissed the charge, finding Anderson was within his rights to refuse to go and the video showed he wasn't resisting. The city cleared Nissen of excessive use of force after an internal affairs investigation in which Anderson wasn't interviewed.
The confidentiality agreement called for Anderson and his attorney, Tom Frerichs, to keep the terms secret, including from "members of the media and other public interest groups or organizations."
"The parties and their attorneys will not speak or provide any information to any media sources and will hold no press conferences," it says. "The parties and their attorneys also agree not to put any information ... on any form of social media, including, but not limited to, Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Snapchat or Instagram."