VIS Teacher Victim of Police Brutality
American Mike Brennan’s injuries at the hands of Viennese law enforcement officers have brought denials and obfuscation from Austrian authorities at all levels
"As soon as I got off I got hit. Before I could even see what happened I was on my back, my backpack still on. My head hit the concrete, and there was a guy on top of me, throwing punches. He didn’t say a word."
This is how Vienna International School (VIS) teacher and black American Mike Brennan describes the end of what should have been a routine subway journey; except that this time – around 2:30pm on Wednesday, Feb. 11 – Brennan was jumped as he stepped off the train, he says, pinned to the ground and beaten repeatedly by two men he’d never seen before. The alleged assailants would later turn out to be plain-clothes police officers, and Brennan is now seeking justice for what he sees as an unprovoked act of police brutality and racism. Vienna’s Chief of Police, however, views the incident as a mix-up rather than mistreatment, and has allowed the officers to carry on working as normal. The Public Prosecutor’s Office continues its investigations.
It has been two weeks since the events at Spittelau station in Vienna’s 9th District, and Brennan, a normally athletic ex-football professional, still cannot get around without the support of crutches. The blows he sustained that afternoon put him in hospital and left him with a bruised spine, sprained wrist, and injuries to his head and neck. He takes medication for the pain, but still suffers headaches. "And I never had headaches, ever," he says. Despite this he remains calm and patient as he describes what happened that afternoon as the train he was traveling in approached its destination.
"I was sitting at the front of the train, and after a few stops two black guys came from the back of the train and sat in front of me, facing the same direction as me. Then two white guys came from the back of the train and sat directly in front of them. It felt weird – I got a bad feeling inside – so I sent my girlfriend an SMS, then got up and called her on the phone, and went and stood by the doors at the back of the train," explains Brennan. "The train stopped, I was still talking on the phone, and as soon as I stepped out – as soon as I turned – I was on my back."
Brennan recounts a man on top of him "going crazy." Realising he was under attack he tried to defend himself, when a second man came at him "from the side," jumped on him and began punching too. According to Brennan the attack lasted some three or four minutes minutes, and the two men stopped only when the teacher’s girlfriend of two-and-a-half years – a white Austrian – arrived at the scene and intervened. "Polizei, polizei!" shouted one of Brennan’s alleged assailants, briefly flashing his badge at her as she dialed the emergency services. This was the first time either man had identified himself, or even uttered a word, says Brennan. It later became clear that both men were undercover agents for Vienna’s drug crime prevention squad, and that they had confused Brennan with a suspected cocaine dealer.
Unfortunately, the officers’ aggression didn’t stop after the attack, says Brennan. They then pulled him to his feet, searched his bag and took his phone, and demanded identification. Brennan handed over his VIS identity card, which was never returned. He felt an excruciating pain in his back and sunk to the floor, demanding to be taken to a hospital or allowed to contact the U.S. Embassy. One of the officers replied by telling him to "stop crying" – the only words said in English and addressed directly at Brennan during the whole incident, he says. The officer, referring to Brennan, then told his girlfriend in German that "they always act like this."
Brennan’s girlfriend called an ambulance, and he was taken to hospital for treatment and released later that day. He returned to the hospital the following weekend due to the continuing pains, and was kept there two nights.
As news of the incident spread, sympathy for Brennan and outrage at his alleged mistreatment grew among friends and colleagues, as did concern that the case would not be taken seriously by the police. "The school community, parents, teachers and students were shocked to hear what had happened to Mike," says Joseph O’Rourke, a teacher at the VIS and colleague of Brennan. "As first news of the incident reached us we believed this was an assault by members of the public. When it was later established that two police officers were responsible it made the news all the more sickening and caused a great deal of additional concern." Campaigns organised by friends of Brennan soon sprung up online, including a "Justice for Mike Brennan" group on Facebook and a blog, and by the end of the first weekend following the events at Spittelau, both the national and international media had become engaged.
By this time, the police had already initiated an internal inquiry into the incident through the Büro für Besondere Ermittlungen (Office for Special Investigations), while the Public Prosecutor began investigating the possibility of criminal proceedings. Nevertheless, fears that the case will be swept under the carpet persist, heightened by what many deem as an unsatisfactory reaction by the authorities.
Brennan received no apology for the injuries sustained during the incident, despite police claims that several attempts had been made to contact him. "My girlfriend got a telephone call the next day from a lady who apologised and said that ‘this has never happened before’, apart from that I’ve heard nothing," he says. Regarding the incident itself, the police issued a press release on Monday, Feb. 16th calling it a "regrettable mix-up," and stating that Brennan had been confused with a suspect with a near identical personal description. Many feel such explanations avoid the real issue.
"Given Mr. Brennan’s accusations concerning the police operation, we cannot accept that the police apologises for having mistaken him for someone else," says Sonja Fercher of ZARA, an organisation that campaigns against racism. "It has been established that he was mistaken for another person because of the color of his skin. But in fact this is not the point. He says that the police did not identify themselves as policemen, and that they attacked him without any reason. If that is true, the problem is not the color of his skin, but the legality of the police operation itself that is in question."
By the end of the following week, however, it became evident that the officers involved would be challenging Brennan’s account of the events. Brennan’s lawyer, Wilfried Embacher, had an opportunity to look at the written statements given by them after the incident. They contradict starkly with the events as described by Brennan.
"They say they called out ‘stop, police!’ in English several times and that he did not stop," says Embacher. "So they grabbed his jacket and tried to bring him down to the ground." Brennan then lost his balance, according to the police reports.
"There is no way in the world they had time to do that," says Brennan in response to the claims made that the officers identified themselves and told him to stop. "As soon as I stepped off the train, I was on the ground."
The police remained tight-lipped over the next days – refusing to comment on an ongoing investigation – until an hour before a Feb. 25th press conference held by Mike Brennan in conjunction with Radio Afrika and Africa.net at Vienna’s Presseclub Concordia. In an interview with Wien Heute, Vienna’s Chief of Police, Gerhard Pürstl, stated that an interim-report issued by the Büro für Besondere Ermittlungen had shown that the police had acted in accordance with regulations, had identified themselves, that Brennan had resisted the officers and defended himself prematurely. Eyewitness accounts did not confirm Brennan’s version of events, and therefore there was no reason to consider the incident anything more than a mix-up, said Pürstl, stating that the two officers would remain on duty. During the Presseclub Concordia conference a reporter pressed Brennan with Pürstl’s comments.
"That’s totally incorrect information. I’m upset with the statement, but it’s not true at all," replied Brennan. "I have witnesses, and I’m a witness of what happened also. Hopefully justice prevails."
In the absence of surveillance footage showing the incident, and the apparent lack of witnesses who observed the events from the start, it appears at the moment to be a question of one person’s word against another’s. While Brennan and his campaigners continue to appeal for anyone who was at the scene to come forward, the conclusions of the Public Prosecutor are eagerly awaited.