Emotional testimony and breakdown as trial continuesZachary Bear Heels, 29, died after encounter with police
By Kevin Abourezk OMAHA, Nebraska – The 29-year-old Lakota man sat facing the side window of the police cruiser, looking outside, mumbling to himself and occasionally cursing. A ponytail hung below the bill of his backward Yankees baseball cap. Zachary Bear Heels’ hands were handcuffed behind him, as Omaha officer Jennifer Strudl sat in the front of the cruiser talking on the phone with his mother, trying to find some place to take Bear Heels. “We have him, but I don’t know what you want us to do with him,” she told his mother, who spoke to her from Oklahoma City, where Bear Heels had been scheduled to arrive by bus that same day before a nervous driver kicked him off the bus after he exhibited erratic behavior. His mother asked Strudl to take him to a bus station so he could get on another bus and come home, but Strudl was reluctant and concerned he would wander away and start causing problems again. Strudl’s cruiser was parked just outside a convenience store west of downtown Omaha. She had responded to a call from the store’s clerk, who asked police to remove Bear Heels from the premises after he had demonstrated strange behavior. “There’s not buses that run right now,” Strudl told his mother. “It’s 1 o’clock in the morning. We’re going to have figure something else out.” Eventually, she took her phone and stepped out of the car, walking around to the rear passenger window and lifting up her phone to an open window so Bear Heels could hear his mother’s voice. But even his mother seemingly couldn’t get through to him, as he continued mumbling and cursing quietly. So Strudl walked back to the front of the car and got back in the driver’s seat. Because he wasn’t a threat to himself or others, Strudl didn’t feel like she could force him into emergency protective custody, and because he hadn’t committed a crime, she couldn’t take him to jail. Because he passed a breathalyzer test, the officer also couldn’t take him to a detox center. So she sat in her cruiser with the mentally ill man, reaching out to others for help, including her station sergeant, who refused her request to take him into emergency protective custody. She eventually decided to take him to the bus station anyway, and walked around the car to put his seat belt on him. As she leaned into the back of the car to do so, Bear Heels stepped out of the car and walked away. Strudl and three other officers then began struggling with Bear Heels to get back in the car, an altercation that culminated with officers shocking him 12 times with a Taser gun and punching him in the head 13 times. About an hour later, Bear Heels died.
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After a third officer, Mead, arrived, Mosby left to respond to a report of a possible DUI and didn’t learn about the outcome of the encounter until he heard a dispatcher call for all available officers to respond to the convenience store several minutes later. During cross-examination of Mosby on Thursday, defense attorney Steven Lefler asked the officer why he didn’t remove Bear Heels cuffs after learning he wasn’t drunk and had no weapons on him. Mosby said Strudl was technically the primary officer on the scene and it would have been up to her to decide whether to remove his handcuffs. He also said he felt like Bear Heels’ demeanor was strange enough that the handcuffs were necessary to protect the officers present. He said he believed Bear Heels belonged in a health care facility. For her part, Strudl told jurors that she didn’t feel like the primary officer in charge of the scene outside the convenience store. “It’s just kind of an unspoken police culture for males to take over,” she said. But she admitted she was the first officer called to the scene and that would have made her the primary officer there. But with less than four years within the Omaha Police Department, she said she didn’t mind allowing Mosby to take the lead. After he left, however, she said she became concerned with where she might take Bear Heels. She said she and Mead considered taking him to a hotel or a homeless shelter, but without his permission, they didn’t feel empowered to do so. After discovering a missing persons report had been filed earlier in the day for Bear Heels, Strudl first contacted her sergeant at the station to ask him about what she should do. Upon hearing that Strudl was concerned because of Bear Heels’ behavior, Sgt. Erik Forehead initially made fun of the man. “Oh, you got a fucking retard,” he told Strudl.
Son, Brother, Grandson, Nephew, Uncle" -- Zachary Bear Heels was laid to rest in
Apache, Oklahoma, following his death in Omaha, Nebraska, in June 2017. His
headstone is seen in this courtesy photo.
Upon questioning, Strudl said she didn’t realize three other officers had met Bear Heels around 4pm the day before after receiving a call that Bear Heels had been seen looking inside the windows of businesses in the area. And while she learned Bear Heels’ mother had called police earlier that day to report him missing, Strudl said she initially couldn’t open the missing persons report and had to call her duty sergeant to have him read it for her. She told jurors if she had known that Bear Heels had been exhibiting such strange behavior for much of the previous day, she might have worked harder to get him placed in emergency protective custody. And she told jurors that she had been 10 weeks pregnant at the time of the altercation with Bear Heels, though she hadn’t told her supervisors yet and wasn’t required to do so until later in her pregnancy. She said she didn’t feel like there was anything she could have done to change the events of that evening, though she admitted to having violated several police policies, including putting Bear Heels in handcuffs despite never placing him under arrest. “I had the best intentions for the situation,” she said, fighting back tears. “In my heart of hearts, I wanted the best for him (Bear Heels) in this situation.” Asked if she ever intended to harm Bear Heels, Strudl denied ever feeling that way. She said once Bear Heels left her cruiser, she and the other three officers had to pursue him and detain him as he had committed a crime by interfering with an investigation. And she denied ever using unreasonable force against the mentally ill man. “Did it come as a surprise to you that he ended up dying?” Lefler asked her Thursday. “Yes,” she said, crying. Outside the courtroom, Dr. Rudi Mitchell, a retired professor and citizen of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, said it had been difficult to watch the video of the altercation between Bear Heels and the four officers. “It was hard watching that,” he said. “I’m glad the family didn’t have to see that.”
#NativeLivesMatterNative Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
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