Police accused of choking Lake Andes boy

LAKE ANDES, S.D. - Three days after the city council of Lake Andes decided not to punish a city police officer for allegedly choking a 12-year-old American Indian boy, the state filed assault charges against the officer.

Officer Michael Atwood was charged with a misdemeanor by the state's attorney office. He is accused of choking 12-year-old Ben Cournoyer of Lake Andes during an altercation in the city park. Cournoyer and two companions were in the park spray-painting graffiti on park benches when Atwood drove by.

Witnesses said he lectured the boys, but when things got heated he grabbed Cournoyer by the throat and shook him.

"He grabbed me by the neck, choked me and lifted me up. I was on my tippy-toes. It was just like he was trying to pull my head off, with both his hands," Cournoyer said.

The case was taken under advisement by the city council, but on July 10 the council decided not to reprimand Atwood. On July 12 the state charged Atwood with the misdemeanor. Following an emergency meeting of the council on July 12 Atwood was kept on duty.

City attorney Tim Whalen said the assault charge was not warranted. The charge came after a state DCI investigation. Whalen shrugged off the charge claiming the investigation was tainted. He said the agents formed an opinion based on media coverage. Whalen added that the state's attorney took the easy way out to relieve tension that occurred in the community.

"They are just trying to cover it up. Because why would they charge him and then allow him to continue to be a law enforcement officer?" asked parent Mike Castillo.

State Attorney General Mark Barnett said the investigation and media accounts were the same.

"I was coming home from my morning coffee uptown. When I pulled in my driveway I saw the cop car driving fast and turn the corner, but it didn't go by. I walked out by the garage," said witness Glendon Gravatt.

"All three boys were sitting on the picnic table. The officer snapped his fingers and said, 'Sit down.' And the boys did. He was lecturing them at first. I thought it was good, probably what they really needed," he said, adding that he turned away to go into his house.

Tribal members and others marched on the Charles Mix County Courthouse July 12 and organizers said they would march everyday until the problem was solved.

Chief of Police R.G. Svatos told the media that Atwood told him he shoved Cournoyer into the picnic table because he was lippy. Three adults witnessed the incident and their accounts were the same.

John Wright lives across from the park. He witnessed the incident from his kitchen window. He said he saw the officer pound his fist on the table and suddenly things turned ugly.

"So not even a minute later, I was putting cream and sugar in my coffee and there the officer was ... he had one of the young kids by the throat. Both his hands were around the kid's neck. I immediately dropped what I was doing and ran outside."

Wright said he hollered, "What do you think you are doing?" and continued across to the park. (Atwood) told me he was protecting himself."

Another witness Gloria Powell said the kids were "so scared. God, they were terrified and the officer, he had this wild look in his eye."

Wright said he filed a complaint on the spot when he stopped Mayor Mike Dongel who was driving by.

Ben was with friends Adrian Costello and Homer Archambeau, both 11. They all admitted they were spray painting profanity on the park benches. They have been charged with vandalism.

Adrian said, "He was cussing at Benny. 'I don't need to take this s... from you.' He even used the 'F' word. The cop let him go when the guy (Wright) came over."

Archambeau ran as the officer attempted to take the trio to the squad car. He later was charged with vandalism and escape.

When the officer had the two boys in the car, he drove to Wright's home, where Wright said the officer told him that, "What I thought I saw, I didn't see or something to that effect. He was faulting my mind from the beginning."

The boys say that the mayor and chief of police questioned them at the station.

"I realize these guys did wrong by painting up those benches," said Homer's father, Wendell Archambeau, "but next time that guy might really hurt somebody."

Adrian's father Mike Castillo said, "I was mad, real mad. That officer wears a badge and is supposed to be a role model. He's supposed to protect and serve, not choke a kid. If that was me or an Indian that did it, they'd be suspended or in jail on an outrageous bail where they couldn't ever get out."

Longtime Lake Andes resident Charon Asetoyer, an American Indian, said the officers patrol in a hostile and aggressive manner as opposed to trying to protect. That aggressiveness is aimed at American Indians and other people of color. "That whole attitude, that these children are the enemy, is not the way to do things. These children are our future, they're special, sacred. They need to be protected."

She said the people are fed up and will not sit back and let racism happen.

Chief of Police R.G. Svatos said the boy wasn't assaulted. "I don't believe it, but it's got to be investigated, no matter what."

"From what we came up with, from the statements and what they told us, we do not feel an immediate suspension was necessary," said the mayor. "This is a real good officer; he knows what he is doing. I'm satisfied there was no choking, but we take all accusations seriously," Dongel said. "There will be an immediate suspension if it does reveal it. If not, he will continue working as he is."

Jennifer Ring, executive director of the regional ACLU said normally such a situation would end with suspension of the officer, with pay, during the investigation. "The department is not sure at this point what happened. To have (the officer) out on the street in these circumstances is most inappropriate."

The Yankton Sioux Tribe's in-house attorney, Julie Weddell, said the atmosphere in the community of less than 900 people is "real tense right now. When there's an allegation of a violent criminal act against a citizen, then an immediate suspension is warranted until an investigation is completed."

Frank Cournoyer, Ben's father said his son has withdrawn, won't go downtown, won't ride his bike and stays in the house all day. He said Ben fears retaliation.