A year ago, undercover police officers mistook school teacher Mike Brennan for a drug dealer as he rode a Vienna subway train. The controversial arrest that followed allegedly left the African American hospitalised. While jittery investigations into the events of that day continue – with authorities recently rejecting the prosecutor’s call to have action brought against one of the two officers involved – Brennan, who considers himself a victim of racial profiling, is intent on keeping the issue alive.
"When the actual day comes around, I’ll be staring at my watch," says Brennan with unease, referring to the upcoming anniversary. "It’s not the kind of thing you forget overnight." On Feb. 11 last year, at around 2:30 in the afternoon, two men Brennan had never seen before bundled him to the ground without warning, he says, as he stepped off a train at Spittelau station, punching and kicking him as they pinned him to the platform.
Brennan’s alleged assailants would later turn out to be plain-clothes officers from Vienna’s Einsatzgruppe Straßenkriminalität (Taskforce Street Crime). Both men maintained they acted according to regulation, identifying themselves as police officers and only bringing Brennan to the ground once he tried to flee. Brennan, however, suffered serious injuries during the incident, including two fractured vertebrae that left him unable to work for months.
The case provoked widespread public outrage at the time, both for the manner in which the authorities handled Brennan during and after the incident (it was even suggested at one point that Brennan had feigned his injuries), and because the botched arrest was seen to justify concerns of racism within Vienna’s police force. An investigation was started in the public prosecutor’s office in Korneuburg, while the two officers remained on duty.
Nearly twelve months later, and the Korneuburg end of the investigation has now closed, explains Brennan’s legal representative Wilfried Embacher, with the prosecutor recommending that Vienna’s senior public prosecutor proceeds with a "Diversionsangebot" against one of the police officers implicated: a process which would have enabled the officer to avoid prosecution and a criminal record by accepting responsibility and paying a fine or undertaking community service.
However, Vienna’s senior public prosecutor’s office rejected this approach, deciding instead to request a review from the doctor who examined Brennan some time after the incident before making a final decision.
While the prosecutors’ offices in Korneuburg and Vienna were unable to provide further information at the time of writing, a new medical report is unlikely.
"They will ask the doctor who took some pictures after the incident to re-examine the same pictures," Embacher explained, "but the doctor has already said his opinion will not change, that Brennan could not have sustained his back injuries through beating or a kicking, and that the injuries were sustained through a fall."
As the doctor’s opinion apparently did not provide sufficient evidence for a prosecution before, how his reiterating of his position could shed fresh light on the matter is hard to say.
"But that is exactly how Brennan sustained his injuries, through the fall when the officers jumped him," says Embacher. "And if Brennan sustained his injuries through a fall during the incident, this also contradicts the statement given by the arresting officers, who said they brought him down ‘gently’."
Embacher does, however, see something positive in the conclusions from Korneuburg.
"Until recently I was sure that the case would simply be closed without any charges against the police officers. But [the Korneuburg prosecutor’s recommendation] is a tacit admission that, after looking at the evidence, he believes that the police did something wrong."
According to Embacher, Korneuburg’s approach might even signal a toughening up in the justice system’s attitude in matters of possible police misconduct. In a related incident, manslaughter charges were brought against an officer earlier this year for allegedly fatal shooting a 14-year old boy as he attempted to escape a bungled supermarket robbery in Krems last August.
Brennan, however, back at work but still in therapy for the injuries he sustained a year ago, is less optimistic about the latest developments in the case.
"I’m happy something’s happening, but I’m not happy with the decision. They’re not saying he’s guilty. I’m saying he’s guilty," he says.
The fact that only one of the two officers involved would have received a Diversionsangebot draws an even less satisfied response from Brennan.
"Both of them attacked me. Both of them were on top of me, not just one, I was attacked by both. One of them came at me from my right hand side while the other held me down. Neither one identified himself. They’re both responsible for my injuries."
For his part, Brennan has been busy keeping the issue alive, as the collective memory of last year’s extensive media coverage fades. He has spoken at anti-racism events wherever possible, and talked to people about the case at every opportunity. In November, a short slide-film he put together about the case won the teacher a runner-up spot in Minnesota-based Waldorf University’s "Scholars for Change" video contest.
"People ask. A lot of people ask. People want to know," says Brennan. "This is a case of strong public interest. What happens in this case effects a lot of people. There has to be some change, and a lot of people are watching."
Brennan is still happy living in Vienna, and holds no grudge against the city’s police force in general. But his need for closure in the matter is clear – closure that seems no nearer as the investigation appears certain to enter its second year.
"It’s an open thing; at least if it was decided one way or another I could decide what to do next."
Nonetheless, a year on, Brennan is as uncompromising as he was the day of the incident. He is determined not to let the story vanish, seeing it as his civic duty to take the matter as far as he can.
"I’m a teacher," Brennan says. "What message would it send the kids if I were to do nothing? If the police, and the authorities, were to do nothing?"