“It’s Supposed to be About Safety, Not Fear.”

An interview with American school teacher Mike Brennan

Mike Brennan in front of the Staatsoper, Aug. 2010 | Photo: David Reali

On the afternoon of Feb. 11 2009, two men jumped at black U.S. citizen Mike Brennan as he exited a subway train at Vienna’s Spittelau station. The men pinned Brennan to the floor, he says, punching and kicking him as they held him to the concrete.

The two men turned out to be plain clothes police officers from Vienna’s Taskforce Street Crime who mistook Brennan for a suspected drug dealer. They also claimed to have acted according to the book – displaying their badges and identifying themselves as police, reacting the way they did only when Brennan looked poised to flee.

Brennan, however, claims otherwise. Unable to work for months after the incident thanks to two fractured vertebrae, he says he had neither seen nor heard anything prior to the bungled arrest. The officers first identified themselves only once his Austrian girlfriend arrived at the platform.

The authorities’ handling of the incident continues to be a litmus test for the country’s justice system. The initial police reluctance to consider the act anything more than a “regrettable mix-up”, plus the leak of an anonymous, alleged witness suggesting Brennan was feigning injury, recalled for many the handling of previous cases of brutality against coloured people.

However, a public outcry coupled with Brennan’s U.S. citizenship has given the case a high profile that previous, similar incidents may have lacked. Instead of a quiet dismissal or other official stonewalling, investigations by the public prosecutor have since resulted in one of the officers being charged with bodily injury through negligence.

The first hearing in the case held Jun. 24 brought a further surprise, when the presiding judge decided that negligence charges were not enough.

“Is there no other way to arrest someone suspected of committing a crime?” asked Justice Margaretha Richter, before referring the matter to a higher court. The officer charged could now face a jail term of up to three years.

Brennan expects to find out within the coming days – possible this month – what direction the now 18-month-old case will take. The Vienna Review met with him in August to find out how his views have evolved since that February afternoon in 2009.

VR: I guess you wish you missed that train?

Brennan (Laughs): Yes, I would think so, yes. I think about how – if I was not on that train, not in that car, if I had have gotten off at a different station – how all these things might not have happened.

But still the simple fact is they did happen, and I like to think all things happen for a reason; if it didn’t happen to me it, could have been a similar story with a different person, and then I don’t now if there would have been this whole process of people recognizing there’s a problem, and that there’s been an ongoing problem in the past. But there’s a lot of ‘what ifs’, yes.

VR: What do you think about the judge’s decision to call for tougher charges against the officer?

Brennan: I think she made the right decision based on the facts and based on everything she saw. I’m glad someone took the initiative to take a stand and try to seek justice, and do the right thing.

She’s done a monumental thing, I think, in my case, and as well as for all other things that happen here in Austria in the future or that happened in the past. It’s kind of a stepping stone, and perhaps she’s trying to set an example.

She said that if she was to let it go the way it was, the punishment wouldn’t fit the crime. She said the officer knew what he was doing, that he was trained so he definitely knew what he was doing, and that I was injured in the process of his actions.

VR: What was it like to share a courtroom with the officer?

Brennan: It brought back the whole situation; I relived the whole thing again. I saw him, and had to think about all of this again, of course. But this time he wasn’t arrogant to me, he wasn’t unprofessional to me. But he was trying to talk to people when they were on the stand, trying to question them, you know, and I don’t know if it that was proper, because I thought his lawyer was supposed to do that, but he seemed to be have his papers prepared and was trying to talk to the witnesses.

VR: How do you feel about charges being brought against only one of the police officers involved?

Brennan: I don’t think it’s right, because both guys were involve, but, like I said, you have to go with the matter of the witnesses who saw what happened. But I think both should be charged. I told my story, and I know what happened, so I’m not really in favour of the situation. But at least something is happening; it’s not like both guys are being released and the situation ignored.

VR: When we talked in February, it was unclear whether charges would be brought against either officer. Given the current state of affairs, are you pleased with the way things are progressing?

Brennan: I’m happy that it finally went to court after a year and a half – and I’m happy that the judge decided to take the matter to a higher court because, like I said, what happened to me was serious – whether accidentally or intentionally – and it’s something that has to be taken care of. So the judge did the right thing, a monumental thing.

This case is historic with regards to such situations, ongoing situations here. So before someone else thinks about doing the same thing, coming over aggressive, not following procedure, I hope they stop and think, and remember ‘that case with Mike Brennan’. I hope they make sure this is the right person before they act; but like I said, no one should be jumped and beaten, even if they committed a crime – there’s a certain way to apprehend people, don’t just jump on them first and ask questions later. That’s my opinion on that.

VR: And has your opinion of the justice system changed over the past 18 months, and, if so, how?

Brennan: Well, before I didn’t really have any problem or any type of relationship with the justice system. I would see the police around, and I never had a problem or anything. Now I look at the justice system overall and think that it takes a long time for anything to work.

The judge talked about these [arrest] procedures in her final statement, and about how something has to change; it’s not right what they’re doing, to say they have a justification to take people down, because they might be bigger or might be dangerous. I mean, there’s certain ways to deal with that.

If you look at other countries, even if you look at the U.S., if there’s an officer that needs help or who sees someone he thinks is dangerous, he calls for backup and waits, rather than trying to jump in and be a hero.

That endangers the officer and endangers the people around him also. But of course, this is not the U.S. system, it’s a lot slower, I think. I’m glad something is being done but I don’t know, it’s a long wait.

VR: Are you now more confident or less confident that justice will be served?

Brennan: I don’t know, I mean, I have hopes, and I’m patient and I’ll wait – but I can’t do anything to make it go faster.

VR: You mention the long wait, and it has been 18 months since the events of February 2009. I guess you can see what long term effects this has left on you?

Brennan: I would say it’s made me more aware of my surroundings here, I mean, I never thought this place would be the kind of place where you need to be wary – I mean it’s not New York City, but you still have to be aware, and it’s a shame that some people are afraid of the police, or afraid to go out at night, afraid to be alone.

For me, I’m just more aware of situations, of the people around me, of who’s on the train. Overall I think this makes you more aware of your surroundings; that things like this could happen to anybody, at anytime.

But nobody should be afraid to move around for fear that they could be attacked. It’s not supposed to be about fear; it’s supposed to be about safety. I was in New York City in the summer, and there’s two or three policeman on every corner. I had no thoughts about being attacked.

VR: And physically?

Brennan: Physically I still do therapy for my back sometimes. Sometimes it hurts. Most of the time I’m okay but it depends on the day, some days I wake up with pain. There’s still trauma around the area of the bones that were broken.

The bones haven’t come back together, they’re healed but they’re still not one complete bone, and they’ll be separated for pretty much the rest of my life. There’s still some trauma around the area and, after a scan in February, they don’t know if and when it will heal. But I try to get on with my life the best I can.

VR: Do people still ask you about the incident? What do they ask?

Brennan: They still ask what happened, some people can’t believe it – they see it, they read it, but they still want to hear it from my mouth. The kids at school still ask me about it – I don’t go into details with them, I just tell them that what happened wasn’t right. One kid came up to me and told me that it doesn’t take a decision made by a judge to see that it’s wrong what happened to me – everyone knows that.

VR: …and after 18 months, do you get tired talking about it?

Brennan: Not really, if talking about helps other people, then I’ll talk about it all day. I mean, it’s not the greatest thing to remember, but, like I said, if it helps the next person, I’m all about trying to help the next person.

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