When cops went to the wrong house, a retarded man got a beating.

The Right to Remain Slow 

When cops went to the wrong house, a retarded man got a beating.

In June, a northeast Kansas City resident called police, fearing that a mentally retarded neighbor was being harassed by a family who lived next door.

By mistake, however, officers responding to the complaint went to the wrong house and became convinced that the mentally retarded man was the suspect in their call.

The result: Darrell Sterling, a custodian, was beaten and handcuffed, charged with multiple crimes and ultimately convicted of resisting arrest. Last month, Sterling was sentenced by a municipal judge to ninety days in jail, a year's probation and 25 hours of community service. (The jail time was suspended.)

That's not what Diana Kent had in mind when she called 911 from her house across the street from Sterling's just after 10 p.m. on June 16.

Kent had seen trouble before between Sterling and his next-door neighbors, whom Kent calls "nothing but troublemakers." Shouting matches were common, and she says she once saw one of the men try to get Sterling to fight.

"Darrell backed away and went in the house. I was very proud of him," Kent says. "He's a quiet person, a quiet, beautiful person. But for some reason, this night was different."

Kent says she heard one of Sterling's next-door neighbors say they should wait until Sterling left and then "wreck his house."

"To me, that's intimidation in the purest kind," Kent says. "Something had to be done."

Kent picked up the phone. A recording of the 911 call she made indicates that she was trying to get the police to stick up for Sterling.

"This is 911, can I help you?" the dispatcher says on the tape.

"Yes, uh, they are having a problem across the street ... with the neighbor right next to them, which would be on the, uh, right-hand side of them. They are trying to cause trouble with him, and he's a man that lives by himself."

"OK, so we just need to get in for a disturbance over there."

"Yes."

Kent told the dispatcher she did not want to talk to the officers. "I'd like you to go check him out, because the man lives alone and they cause him trouble all the time," she says on the tape.

But the dispatcher sent police to the neighbor's house as if the woman there, Elisha Wealot, had called police. That gave Wealot, the troublemaker in Kent's mind, the opportunity to press charges against Sterling, which is what she decided to do.

The 911 tape records the outcome as eight cars and a helicopter responded to the address. The tape concludes with the call for an ambulance to patch Sterling up. None of the officers needed medical attention.

"Hi, we need MAST," the dispatcher says.

"You always need us," is the response.

Sterling has lived in the neatly maintained bungalow on Bellaire just north of St. John Avenue for fifteen years. The house was owned by his wife, who died two years ago.

Sterling's mother-in-law, Carol White, now pays the taxes on the property. White has known Sterling since he was a boy. Her brother married Sterling's aunt. Sterling grew up in an abusive home and was put into foster care by the time he was ten, White says.

White says Sterling sometimes has a hard time understanding people. "Way borderline," she calls him. But with careful explanation, White says, Sterling can grasp anything. He was well-liked at the custodian job he had for 31 years before he was laid off a couple of months ago. "He was as functional as anybody could ever be," White says.

But the police did not have the benefit of knowing Sterling's steady work history when they rolled up on June 16.

On that night, they had been told Sterling's neighbors were the "reporting party." That turned Sterling into the "suspect" -- that's how he is labeled in Officer Gwendolyn Willen's police report.

According to Willen's report, the neighbor, Wealot, said Sterling had thrown trash at her house, and when she'd asked him to "please stop," he'd yelled back at her, "Fuck all you people. You guys are going to move, or I will shoot you -- you fucking niggers." Wealot did not show up for Sterling's trial, and the phone number she gave police was not in service when the Pitch attempted to contact her.

At Sterling's short trial, Willen said Sterling was defensive when she and her partner arrived. "He was saying he didn't hurt anybody, he didn't hurt anybody. That's all he was saying," Willen said in court.

Willen testified that when the neighbor said she wanted to press charges, she and her partner told Sterling he was under arrest.

She wrote in her report that her partner, James Manley, asked Sterling if he had any weapons. Sterling shook his head but began walking toward his house. He reached around to the small of his back, "as if to retrieve a weapon," her report says. Willen and her partner struggled to get Sterling away from his front porch.

In the melee that followed, Willen said Sterling hit her partner in the back of his head, kicked him across the yard and crouched "in a four-point boxer stance, with his fists cocked back." She wrote that they sprayed Sterling with pepper spray before two more officers arrived and that one of those officers punched Sterling in the left eye several times. Then all five people fell off the porch with Sterling on the bottom, hitting the ground face-first.

Witnesses tell the Pitch they saw that part of the scuffle but did not see behavior from Sterling to warrant it. They didn't see him kick, punch or crouch. But they did see him panic.

"He was all scared," says one neighbor who asks not to be named in this story. "He didn't know what was going on. They were not listening. They started hurting him real bad."

The neighbor remembers in particular the way Willen was on top of Sterling, kneeing him in the back.

"He was trying to calm down," Kent says. "But they would not give him a chance to calm down."

Prompted by his attorney, Lance Weber, Sterling recalled only a little of his struggle. "They came at me," he said. "I know they hit me in the face. I got sprayed in the eyes with pepper mace. They were very rough with me, very rough."

Weber also questioned Willen: "At what point did it become apparent to you the defendant was mentally retarded?"

"I thought maybe he wasn't fully aware," Willen acknowledged. "He was assaulting my partner, and he was not putting his hands behind his back."

A few days after the trial, Sterling tells the Pitch that he knows he should have put up his hands when the officers asked. "I got frightened," he says. "With me never seeing police quite come to me like that, I got scared."

He says that sometimes he needs more explanation than normal. "They didn't explain to me nothing. They didn't try to reason it out or try to reason anything. I might have grabbed on the porch. I don't know for sure. Officers to me was just very brutal. I was in such pain and discomfort all the way. That's the worst pain I've ever been in."

Kansas City Police spokesman Capt. Richard Lockhart says that, based on the report, Sterling didn't give the officers time to assess his mental capacity. Even if they had, his move toward the porch determined what followed. The officers' priority then was to keep him out of the house any way they could.

"Officers are trained to use the least amount of force that is necessary to control someone or effect an arrest," Lockhart says. "It tells you how much resistance this man was offering, in [that] it took four officers to control him."

Weber doesn't believe the situation should have required force at all. The original complaint from the neighbor was that Sterling was simply littering. "If someone is suspected of littering, are they typically going to be arrested on that charge? The answer is no."

Weber has appealed Sterling's resisting-arrest conviction, and he is considering a civil lawsuit against the officers involved, the police department and the Board of Police Commissioners.

Sterling says he doesn't want anyone else to go through what he did. "I don't want anybody else to get hurt by officers like that."

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