RACINE — The trial of the Racine Police officer accused of using excessive force against a Park High School student in 2015 continued Wednesday, as jurors heard opening statements from both sides and witness testimony.
Brinelle Nabors, 38, is facing charges of felony misconduct in public office and misdemeanor counts of battery and disorderly conduct.
The charges stem from a Nov. 20, 2015, incident at Park High School in which Nabors was working as a security officer. Nabors was told that a 14-year-old student named Conrad Cottingham Jr. had “lean,” a mixture typically containing codeine-based cough syrup, soda, candy and sometimes alcohol.
Nabors allegedly took Cottingham to the lunchroom floor and handcuffed him. As Cottingham and Nabors and another officer headed to the principal’s office, Nabors allegedly struck the student in the face and held him against a locker, according to the criminal complaint.
Nabors, who has been on paid suspension since the incident, said the student was showing signs of resistance, which prompted Nabors’ response.
Special prosecutor James Kraus from the Kenosha District Attorney’s Office kept his opening remarks brief. He explained to jurors why he was trying the case instead of Racine County prosecutors: to avoid any potential conflict that could arise because a Racine Police officer was being tried.
“I believe the evidence will show that Officer Nabors did not follow procedures; he did not avail himself of all the options he had available to him; he could have done ... something else besides striking or punching a 14-year-old in the face with a closed fist,” Kraus said. “And that not following proper tactics and procedures contributed to this atmosphere or to this situation that Mr. Nabors found himself in.”
Nabors’ attorney, Patrick Cafferty, started by apologizing to the jury for the “ugly language” he said he would have to use because of the language he said Cottingham had used during the incident.
Cafferty then walked through the incident again, stating that Cottingham was threatening and “abusive” toward Nabors. He said that Nabors performed a “reactive strike” to control Cottingham, and Cafferty said Cottingham refused to provide a statement to police about the incident.
Cafferty then pointed to Cottingham’s medical record, which contained language that Cottingham allegedly said to hospital staff that indicated he was “resisting arrest.” The medical record was later changed after Cottingham and his family filed a civil lawsuit against the city.
The lawsuit was ultimately settled with the city for $400,000 in the summer of 2017.
Cafferty said that at the end of the trial, jurors would agree that Nabors acted within his rights as an officer.
“There is no doubt that Conrad Cottingham was struck by Officer Nabors,” Cafferty said. “The ultimate thing you are going to have to decide is whether he had the legal right to do so.”
Cottingham, now 17, testified that the bottle he had did not contain “lean” but was simply juice. When Nabors approached him in the lunchroom, he said he did not know why.
“I was confused, really,” Cottingham said. “I was trying to understand what happened.”
He said he was “slammed to the ground” by Nabors and was choked as well as being struck in the head and pushed into lockers three times. Cottingham denied threatening officers or resisting Nabors.
When questioned by Cafferty, Cottingham admitted to skipping a class the day he was arrested. He said he asked for his medical record to be changed because it was incorrect — not because of the civil suit his family filed.
Cafferty also brought up Cottingham’s current pending charges: misdemeanor counts of criminal trespass to a dwelling and disorderly conduct.
Nabors takes the stand
Nabors, who also attended Park High School, said his own father was a police officer, which is why he went into law enforcement.
Nabors said at the time of the incident, he had been an officer for about three to 3½ years and a security officer at Park for about 18 to 20 months.
During the incident, Nabors said, Cottingham used racial epithets against him and repeatedly threatened to beat him up. He said he could feel Cottingham resisting. Nabors said Cottingham said, “Just wait,” which made him think something was about to happen.
“From his threats and everything, I thought he was going to headbutt me, so I threw a reactionary strike,” Nabors said.
When asked about a video of the incident which appears not to show overt physical resistance, Nabors said, “The video does not show everything. It’s very choppy.”
When asked if he believes he chose the best option in the situation, Nabors replied, “I chose the option to make a reaction off of someone else’s actions who was trying to harm myself.”
The other officers that were at Park High School that day — Jerome King, Frederick Hyatt and Richard Prince — also took the stand, describing what they saw the day of the incident.
Hyatt, a 19-year Racine Police Department veteran, said he did not hear any discussion between Nabors and Cottingham prior to the “strike” that Nabors delivered.
Prince, an 11-year veteran, said that Nabors told him after the incident that Cottingham threatened to beat Nabors.
King, a six-year veteran of the police force, was the officer who assisted Nabors during the incident. King testified that Cottingham was resisting arrest and said that Nabors delivered a “reactionary strike,” a tactical move used to gain better control of a person.
When Kraus showed King surveillance footage of Nabors, King and Cottingham walking to the principal’s office, King was asked to point out when Cottingham was physically resisting arrest. King could not, but stated that the video did not show everything that was happening that day.
The trial is scheduled to continue Thursday, Jan. 10, when the defense is set to present an expert witness who reportedly is versed in excessive force.