Special prosecutor: Purdue officer use of force justified in arrest that went viral
No charges for officer or student. New video shows more, as university weighs response to special prosecutor’s report, months after video went viral, raising old questions about being Black on campus
Thanks this morning to sponsor Barash Law for support to help make this edition of the Based in Lafayette reporting project possible.
The scene with a Purdue police officer taking down a Black student and pinning him into a snowbank – captured on an Instagram video shared hundreds of thousands of times since February and that spurred fresh conversations about what it means to be Black on the West Lafayette campus – did not amount to excessive force, a special prosecutor said Monday.
If anything, Purdue Officer Jon Selke “should be commended, not vilified” for the way he handled a confrontation with Purdue junior Adonis Tuggle, Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings said after releasing findings that cleared Selke, more than two months after the incident.
On the other side, Cummings said he found reasons to charge Tuggle for resisting arrest, along with other potential crimes tied to what he called a domestic incident involving an argument between the student and his girlfriend while parked near Lynn Hall on Purdue’s south campus area the night of Feb. 4.
But Cummings said he held off on filing charges when Selke, unnamed Purdue University representatives and Tuggle’s girlfriend’s mother asked him to decline pursuing any.
Cummings said Monday that Tuggle’s video – one minute taken from the altercation – was what he called a “selective” attempt to “help him evade responsibility for his behavior” to one where “suddenly the police are using unreasonable force on a Black man.”
“He shifted the whole narrative,” Cummings said. “It's all on video, and I can tell the person responsible for that conflict is Mr. Tuggle. … What the officer did to get control of that situation was not unreasonable, particularly in light of the fact that Mr. Tuggle was not injured.”
Attempts to reach Tuggle, a junior in the College of Health and Human Sciences, were not immediately answered Monday.
Andrew Stroth, an attorney representing Tuggle and his family, said Monday afternoon: “We will have a comment tomorrow.”
Attempts to reach Selke and Purdue Police Chief John Cox also were not immediately successful. And it was not clear whether Selke was back on patrol on campus; the department pulled him after Cox said Selke had received death threats as the social media video spread.
Purdue officials were quiet overall Monday.
“We appreciate the care and concern shown by the special prosecutor to thoroughly investigate the incident on Feb. 4,” Tim Doty, a Purdue spokesman, said Monday. “We will have a statement once we have taken the time to review the ruling.”
In early March, John Gates, Purdue’s vice provost for diversity and inclusion, told students at a forum organized by the Purdue Black Student Union that no matter what the special prosecutor said in his official report, “expect in due course a response from the university.” (Gates also allowed that the officer’s actions were “within general orders,” but that, “in and of itself, doesn’t negate the fact that what we saw was pretty horrible.”)
Gates did not offer hints, at the time, about what that university response might include.
Tippecanoe Circuit Judge Sean Persin appointed Cummings as special prosecutor on Feb. 22, after Tippecanoe County Prosecutor Pat Harrington asked for help “to avoid the appearance of impropriety” in a case involving accusation against a police officer.
By that time, Purdue President Mitch Daniels already had asked Indiana State Police to conduct an independent investigation. Shannon Kang and Olivia Wyrick, Purdue’s student body president and vice president, had sent a campuswide letter to students calling out the Purdue police department and calling on students to “take a stand against this act of violence.” A forum to discuss the incident a day after it went public drew an overflow crowd to Lilly 1-105, a lecture hall that fits 446 students for class. And Black Student Union leaders called it a moment to make some lasting changes in how Purdue polices campus, particularly when it came to Black students, faculty and staff.
For more Based in Lafayette reporting project editions, straight to your inbox, consider subscribing now. Free and full-ride options available.
Cummings’ four-page report came with a general outline of what happened, along with a copy of the video Tuggle posted to Instagram on Feb. 9 and fresh video from Selke’s body camera, made public for the first time Monday.
According to Cummings’ account, the episode started when someone called Purdue police to report a “woman in driver’s seat, guy outside of door screaming really loud. … I think she’s trying to leave. He won’t let her leave.” Cummings said a dispatcher could hear screaming in the background as the caller said, “He’s trying to get her out of the car. He’s trying to grab her, too. I can’t tell for sure.”
(Not in the report: Tuggle told the Purdue Exponent after he posted his video that he and his girlfriend had been driving home from the Co-Rec and had been arguing. He said they stopped the car near Purdue’s veterinary hospital and continued arguing outside. He said that’s when Selke arrived.)
Selke was first on the scene. According to Cummings’ report, and the video from Selke’s body camera, Tuggle was standing outside a car, wearing shorts and a winter coat, while his girlfriend sat in the driver’s seat. (Cummings did not name the woman in the report. He said he wasn’t able to speak with her, saying she’d been unavailable “because of personal issues.”)
Selke opens with, “All right, what’s going on?”
“This is my girlfriend,” Tuggle said. “She’s been acting fucking crazy.”
“Awesome, cool,” Selke said. “Come over here. Stand behind the car, OK?”
Tuggle instead answered the woman in the car, who wanted her phone. Tuggle reached into his pocket, pulled out the phone and gave it to her.
“Why do you have her phone and her wallet?” Selke asked Tuggle.
“Because she’s not listening to me, and I’m trying to get her attention,” Tuggle told Selke.
Selke told Tuggle again to move behind the car. Tuggle looked at the ground to find something, telling Selke he couldn’t see because he didn’t have his glasses.
“OK, here’s the deal, I asked you nicely,” Selke said, moving toward Tuggle. “I’m about to put you in handcuffs.”
Tuggle, standing away from the driver’s side, asked his girlfriend a question. When Selke grabbed Tuggle’s right arm, Tuggle said, “Please.” As his girlfriend tried to get out of the car, Selke ordered her to get back in: “Sit down. Now.” Tuggle, with one handcuff on his right wrist, told Selke: “Don’t talk to her like that.” Selke told Tuggle to put his hands behind his back and puts him up against the car and – as Selke’s body-cam “becomes obscured in the commotion,” as Cummings wrote – the two wind up on the ground, Selke on top of Tuggle.
From the time Selke gets out of his patrol vehicle to the time the first handcuff is on Tuggle’s wrist, fewer than 40 seconds go by, according to Selke’s body cam video. The two start scuffling within 50 seconds of Selke arriving.
Cummings relied on the clip that went viral, shot by Tuggle’s girlfriend, to piece together much of the 90-second struggle before other Purdue officers arrive. In it, Cummings wrote that “Tuggle’s right hand can be seen reaching around Officer Selke and resting on Officer Selke’s handgun, which was secured in a holster on his duty belt.”
At various points in the video, the woman pleads: “You’re hurting him. … Get off of him.” At one point, she gets close and yells at the officer to stop choking him, Selke tells her to back off, saying, “Touch me again, and I will taze you. Stop.” In the video, Tuggle told Selke that the officer was choking him and that he couldn’t breathe with Selke’s forearm on his face and neck.
Cummings said Selke “used reasonable force … justified under the circumstances.” Cummings wrote that “at no time” did Selke choke Tuggle and that the officer “placed his forearm on Mr. Tuggle’s chest and briefly on the side of his neck until assisting officers arrived.”
According to the report, Tuggle later told a different Purdue officer that he’d tried to stop Selke “in self-defense,” after his arm was grabbed. When asked by the other officer if he was injured, Cummings wrote that Tuggle reported, “I’m fine.”
That, Cummings said, was an indication that Selke’s actions did not amount to excessive force.
Read the full report here:
In the new body cam footage, as other officers separate Selke and Tuggle and help the student to his feet, Tuggle, his hair covered in snow, yelled: “You’re a racist-ass piece of shit. Couldn’t even take me by yourself. … I hope to see you in court.”
The next 25 minutes of Selke’s body-cam video involves police milling about the scene. (It also includes about 10 minutes on mute, as officers talk to each other.)
Tuggle bonded out of the Tippecanoe County Jail that same night.
This was from the conclusion in Cummings’ report:
“I recognize there are times when police officers fail to live up to their public trust and expectations. This, however, was not one of those occasions, and the public response to this incident was therefore unfortunate. Mr. Tuggle released a video that failed to depict his own behavior which necessitated police use of force. His tactic was effective in provoking passion and deflecting criticism of his behavior. And while I agree Officer Selke could have spent more time attempting to de-escalate the situation, that consideration is not within the scope of my responsibility. The situation was tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving. The full investigation reveals that Officer Selke did exactly what we expect our police officers to do. He intervened on behalf of the victim and successfully restrained Mr. Tuggle until backup arrived without injuring him. For that, Officer Selke should be commended, not vilified.”
Cummings said Monday that he met last week at Indiana State Police Lafayette post with Selke, Purdue Police Chief John Cox and a member of the administration at Purdue. He said he did not get a response when he reached out to Tuggle’s attorney.
“I wouldn’t expect that they would,” Cummings said. “I can’t imagine that they were going to permit him to come talk to me. There wasn’t anything he needed to say. It was on the video.”
Thanks, again, to Based in Lafayette sponsor Barash Law for helping make this edition possible.
Thanks for signing up and making the reporting project work. Not a subscriber, but thinking about it? I’ll do my best to make it worthwhile.