This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 will run this week.
Kevin Penn, a Black store owner who was punched by a white police officer and knocked face down to the floor in March after initiating a 911 call about a shoplifting attempt, says he and other Black men in Decatur face a serious dilemma when they need police assistance.
“I’ve met some good officers, but there are some bad, and you don’t know who’s coming to the scene,” Penn said in a lengthy interview detailing his recent encounters with police. “Are you going to have a professional officer that’s an asset to the department, who really understands how to serve and protect? Or are you going to have a rogue one that’s capable of doing anything?
“As a Black man, you’re rolling the dice.”
Police Chief Nate Allen, who also is Black, does not discount the vulnerability Black civilians feel when encountering white policemen.
“I hear that quite frequently, and I believe it to be true,” he said. “Just look at it this way: It doesn’t matter what your race is, when a police officer gets behind you, everybody tenses up. ‘Oh God, I’m going to get a ticket.’ It could be even worse on a Black male, in light of all the things that are going on around the nation and world. Yes, I can see the tension there.”
The March 15 punch and takedown that left Penn with a broken jaw and missing teeth, and a later encounter in which another Decatur police officer pulled a gun while Penn was leaving a downtown cigar club, have definitely made the 48-year-old Penn tense.
“I’ll be driving and I’m looking at a police officer driving. Everybody who’s Black says the same thing — it has their head on a swivel,” said Penn, the owner of Star Spirits & Beverages. “Because if we get pulled over, we might not come out of that. … You see a big pothole and you don’t want to swerve around it. You just slow down and ease over it. You don’t want to be looked at as swerving.”
Penn’s encounter with police at his liquor store received national attention when an in-store security video of the incident began circulating on social media June 7, almost three months after it happened. That was followed by a June 8 press conference in which Allen played an edited snippet of a policeman’s body camera footage from the same incident.
The security video showing the officer's fist making contact with Penn's jaw — released less than two weeks after a white Minneapolis policeman was videotaped killing a Black man, George Floyd — quickly became an exhibit in the Black Lives Matter movement. A change.org petition started by Giovanni Orozco of Decatur demanding "Justice for Kevin Penn" has collected more than 58,000 signatures.
Orozco, 22, had never met Penn, but he said after seeing the video he couldn't let it drop.
"I already felt really strongly about the injustices that I've been seeing. I'm Hispanic myself, so I've seen what minorities go through firsthand," Orozco said. "I saw the video and I couldn't believe it, and then I saw it was in my own city, in the place that I grew up in. I can't change what's going on in Minneapolis or New York, but I can do something about what's happening in my own community.
"I wanted to be part of the change that I wanted to see."
While Penn had filed a citizen’s complaint with the department immediately after the March 15 incident, it was not until the social media post and media attention that Allen placed the officer who punched Penn, Justin Rippen, on nondisciplinary desk duty as the departmental investigation continued. The investigation is over, Allen said in a recent interview, and Rippen "has been dealt with." The city of Decatur has thus far failed to produce requested documents pertaining to the investigation or any discipline.
Beyond his statements at the June 8 press conference, Allen has refused to provide details on the incident, saying the threat of litigation by Penn prevents him from being transparent.
Penn gave a detailed account of the March 15 events.
At about 8:30 p.m. March 15 a man entered Star Spirits, Penn’s liquor store on Sixth Avenue Northeast near downtown. Based on the man’s behavior, Penn suspected he planned to steal something. The man grabbed two bottles of liquor and ran toward the door, at which point Penn activated a magnetic door lock that he accessed from behind the shop counter.
Penn, who has a concealed carry permit, then pulled a gun to apprehend the shoplifter. He drew the gun, he said, in part because a past shoplifter had broken out of the store by throwing liquor bottles at the glass door, “so not only did we lose the product, there was damage to the store.”
More importantly, Penn said, he drew a gun because he feared the shoplifter was armed.
At Penn’s request, a friend of his who was in the store called 911. According to Allen, the caller reported a robbery, so police came to the store thinking a robbery might be in progress. The city of Decatur has blocked The Daily’s efforts to obtain a transcript of the 911 call because, according to City Attorney Herman Marks, "it is part of a criminal proceeding." The proceeding to which he referred is not a prosecution of the robber or Rippen, but of Penn.
Minutes after the 911 call, several police officers showed up with guns drawn, standing outside the locked perimeter door. Penn, who had been standing near the shoplifter and holding his gun, said he motioned to the officers and went behind the counter to unlock the door for them and to place his gun on the counter. Two of the officers ordered the shoplifter to lie down, which he did.
“I knew immediately I didn’t want to be perceived as a threat, so the first thing I do is put the weapon on the counter and I dropped the magazine from it,” Penn said. He also removed a bullet from the gun’s chamber. “Just as they are outside the perimeter door, I had laid the weapon on the counter unloaded, unchambered, and I was putting the round into the magazine when they were starting to come in.”
That’s when problems began, and they unfolded in seconds.
“We do know there was a gun there, we do know the magazines were there, we do know that he was reloading the magazine,” Allen said at the June 8 press conference.
Penn does not dispute this, except to point out that the magazine had been removed from the gun, the unloaded gun was on the counter, and he was merely returning the unchambered bullet to the detached magazine.
The store security video contains no audio, but in the short body-cam video played by Allen at the press conference, an officer can be heard yelling at Penn to drop his gun. Penn can be heard yelling back, but what he says is not clear.
Asked why he would argue with police who had guns pointed at him, he said it was because they clearly thought he was a robber and they were demanding something of him that was impossible.
“They’re asking for a weapon that’s not in my hand. I’m figuring, what are you planning to do to me? I don’t have a weapon in my hand. You’re fixing to do something to me, and I’m unarmed,” Penn said. “I said, ‘It’s on the counter. I’ve got a permit for it. I have a right to it.’ I kept telling them, ‘I’m the owner. I’m the owner,’ and that’s when one of them said, ‘You could be the robber.’ And I said, ‘Listen, I called you!’”
Penn said the store security video suggests his pleas got through to one officer, who appears to be holstering his gun. At the same moment, however, Rippen rushes Penn and punches him in the chin. “I felt the popping of the bone in my jaw,” Penn said. He would later spend six weeks with his jaws wired together and eating through a straw.
Allen said Penn is wrong in suggesting the situation had deescalated before Rippen intervened.
“The tension never subsided. I wish it would have subsided on either side, but no, the tensions never subsided on either side,” Allen said. “But that’s all part of the litigation, so I really can’t get into more of that case until it gets settled.”
No lawsuit is pending, although Penn and his lawyer, Carl Cole, submitted a notice of their intent to sue.
After the punch, Penn said, Rippen grabbed one of his arms, another officer grabbed his other arm, and a third grabbed him around the neck from behind, all of which is visible on the store video.
“So my jaw is already broken, and when they go around my neck they take me down. My floor is concrete and brick, so when I went down I couldn’t brace myself. So when I went down, my face hit the floor. That’s when my teeth came out,” Penn said.
Only seconds had elapsed between the arrival of the police and Penn finding himself face down on the floor with handcuffs being snapped on, and he said he was bewildered.
“I kept telling them, ‘I’m unarmed. I’m unarmed. I’m the owner. You punched me in the face and I’m unarmed. I’m no threat to you.’ I was just so stunned,” Penn said. “That’s when the pain started to hit me in the face. And my friend, the customer, kept saying, ‘That’s the owner!’ He was trying to explain it to them, too. They didn’t believe I was the owner.”
'I felt helpless'
He said he was moved to a police car in the store parking lot, handcuffed so tight that he “felt searing pain under my arm,” and his jaw was swollen and he was bleeding. He said police called an ambulance and it arrived, but they would not let it transport him to the hospital. Eventually police took him to the hospital, then transported him to the Morgan County Jail where he was advised he was being charged.
”I’m thinking they must be charging me with robbery,” Penn said.
Instead, Rippen — the officer who punched him — swore out a complaint against Penn for misdemeanor obstructing governmental operations.
“And when I heard the charge, I’m like, ‘What is this? I called you all for help.’ I’m assaulted, I’m sent to the hospital, I’m embarrassed, I’m going through all these feelings. Now I’m getting arrested? Man, I could not even rationalize what was happening to me,” Penn said.
It was a night that Penn said affected his view of the world.
“The whole thing just landed on me, man,” Penn recalls. “I felt helpless. It was one of the times in my life when I felt the most vulnerable. I felt like the police could do anything to you, and there’s nothing you could do about it. Absolutely nothing.”
Penn's lawyer, who is defending him on the misdemeanor, said the charge is ludicrous.
"It's really a retaliation charge," Cole said, a response to Penn's expressed determination to initiate an internal affairs review of the incident. "Maybe the most frustrating thing about this aside from the injuries is that he's got to deal with an arrest, that he's out on bond, on a case that probably won't be heard until next year because of the coronavirus.
"It just speaks to the awesome power of an individual police officer to disrupt somebody's life. You can have a great appreciation for police and still want them held to a high standard and held accountable for misconduct."
Allen won’t comment on what went wrong March 15 at Penn’s liquor store, but he acknowledges that police, like everyone else, are affected by prejudices.
“I try not to use the term ‘color blind,’ because color is always going to be a factor,” Allen said. “It’s always going to be something I’m going to see. We all have biases,” he said.
While Allen believes many Blacks fear white police officers, he said the fear is not reciprocal. What some Blacks perceive as fear or hostility, he said, has more to do with training.
“I don’t think white police officers fear the Black guys,” he said. “I think it’s an officer’s safety strategy. We teach officer safety from the time they come to the academy to the time they retire. We teach awareness and we teach distance.”
He said he's working hard to improve relations between police and the community generally, and especially between white officers and the Black community.
"I do have a very, very difficult role," Allen said. "Being a Black police chief makes it very difficult. The Black people feel that if you don't side with them, you're a sell-out. The white people feel like I'm going to side with the Black folks because I'm Black, and they're concerned about whether they can trust me on it."
Penn is convinced he suffered a broken jaw because a white police officer immediately assumed the Black man he encountered must be a robber and a threat, not a store owner seeking police assistance.
“How many thousands of times have I thought, ‘What could I have done?' I can’t see a thing I did that constituted a threat. I’m unarmed. I’m the owner. I had the magazine in my hand," Penn said. "I don’t know what I could have done to make them feel any safer than I did.
“I’m not oblivious to the fact that we have to deal with a systemic issue across the nation. But it starts local. Everything starts local.”
Part 2, coming this week: Another policeman drew his gun during an encounter with Kevin Penn last month, and Police Chief Nate Allen outlines his efforts to improve relations between police and the community.