The other side 

Former Griz player, family threaten lawsuit over controversial arrest

On Oct. 23, 2011, former University of Montana football player Gerald Kemp says that he briefly lost consciousness after a Missoula Police Department officer shot him with a Taser for the second time. The stun gun's barbs landed in the player's sternum, causing him to temporarily blackout before being placed in a police cruiser and arrested.

"It's definitely something that's not easy to forget," says Kemp in his first interview since the police responded to the North Russell Street house party that garnered national headlines and added to nearly two years of investigations surrounding the UM football program.

Last month, the National Collegiate Athletic Association released findings from an 18-month investigation into Grizzly football. On July 26, the oversight body penalized the program for a series of rule violations. Many of the violations stemmed from the fallout of the October 2011 house party during which Kemp was arrested.

When the NCAA announced its findings against UM, former football coach Robin Pflugrad and former Athletic Director Jim O'Day, both of whom were fired in March 2012, said the report failed to take into consideration the full extent of what happened at the party. Neither elaborated, although Pflugrad told Utah's Standard-Examiner, "If you read through the NCAA (report), I did have concerns that there was the possibility of some civil rights violations that did exist. My concern was to control the emotions of my minority players and my minority coaching staff."

Kemp and his family are now talking about why emotions ran high during the arrest. They accuse the Missoula Police Department of using excessive force and potentially singling out black players at the party. They are preparing to file a lawsuit against the city.

Kemp's friends and family add that the former player is still not wholly recovered from the October 2011 incident. The Independent obtained video footage from the arrest, and one section captures the sound of Kemp weeping while detained in a police cruiser at the scene.

"I didn't touch the cop," Kemp says today, maintaining that he was arrested for no reason.

•••

On that night of Oct. 23, 2011, the Griz had just returned from Flagstaff, Ariz., where they beat Northern Arizona 28-24. Roughly 30 people, including football players and their friends, gathered at an apartment leased by Kemp's teammate, Trumaine Johnson, who now plays for St. Louis Rams.

What happened next is disputed. MPD says it responded to a noise complaint and found a combative Johnson and Kemp. According to an MPD investigation conducted after the incident, Kemp allegedly slapped an officer's hand and hit another patrolman in the chest prior to being shot with a Taser.

In light of Kemp's "size and strength, apparent consumption of alcohol and overall demeanor," MPD stated in that report that using a Taser constituted an appropriate use of force.

Kemp says that's false, noting that he couldn't possibly have hit the officers. He was recuperating from a shoulder injury sustained the week prior during a game against Portland State and that left him unable to lift his left arm. In his right hand, Kemp held a cellphone. At the time he was hit with the Taser, Kemp was talking to his grandfather, whom he called for advice as additional police arrived on the scene.

While on the phone, Kemp observed two or three officers approaching him. "I kind of froze," he says. Police asked him for identification. Kemp answered, "Why?" and told officers he wasn't doing anything wrong. He had had a few beers that evening, but he was of age and he wasn't driving. "I was not belligerent," Kemp says.

Kemp says he was scared and unwilling to put down the phone.

"Basically, I just turn, and I just rip my arm away. ... That's when they tased me the first time. ... From there, I was yelling for help ... I was still standing up ... and then that's when the officers from the other side ... tased me again right in my sternum."

Gerald's grandfather, 68-year-old George Kemp, helped raise Gerald. He remained on the phone from his home in San Diego while police shot his grandson with the Taser. George Kemp says he heard Gerald screaming. "I thought they were killing him," he says.

According to MPD's investigation, Johnson then jumped on officer Pat Erbacher's back. Video footage from that night obtained by the Independent appears to reinforce that finding.

That same footage captures police chastising Johnson for intervening in the arrest. Erbacher yells at Johnson: "That was the dumbest thing you've ever done in your entire life. (Unintelligible) people have served our country right now in the United States Marine Corps. You go play football. ... Maybe you should get out of Montana if that's what you want to do. ... I don't know where you're from. I don't care..."

Police initially charged Kemp and Johnson with obstructing a police officer, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The student-athletes eventually pleaded no contest to misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges.

click to enlarge Gerald Kemp - TODD GOODRICH
  • Todd Goodrich
  • Gerald Kemp

Assistant Missoula Police Chief Mike Brady says that MPD penalized Erbacher for verbally engaging with Johnson. "It was unprofessional to banter back and forth," he says. The department, however, has maintained that its officers used appropriate force. "We would have been ready to go to trial," Brady says, "had it come to that."

The issue might yet be headed for court. George Kemp says that it seems as if police targeted African-American players at the party that night. "I don't know what's in those officers' hearts," he says. "I just know what they did. And what they did was an act of racism, because they used (force) against the black kids, and they didn't do anything of that type to any of the white kids."

The family plans to file a civil lawsuit against the city, alleging that law enforcement used unnecessary force.

"We are pursuing it right now," George Kemp says.

•••

O'Day, UM's former athletic director, spoke with several people who were at the party in the days that followed the incident. Many of them said that the police that night frightened them.

"It scared them, to say the least," O'Day says. "I had different groups through the next couple of days come in (with) very similar (stories). Another group came in later that afternoon, the same thing. And their stories all were similar. And so, it made us wonder really about what did happen. ... We really knew that there was quite a bit more to it than we initially heard."

Fallout from the party played a central role in the NCAA's findings from an investigation into the UM football team. The NCAA stated in its report that UM and, more specifically, former head coach Pflugrad, violated NCAA rules by not reporting that UM boosters helped bail out Trumaine Johnson and Gerald Kemp after the October 2011 arrests. The NCAA also stated that Kemp and Johnson received inappropriate legal assistance from a UM booster who represented them against charges filed after the house party.

Kemp and his family maintain, and the NCAA report acknowledges, that they paid back the bail money. But the NCAA found that allowing a booster to bail out the two student-athletes constituted preferential treatment and, therefore, was a violation.

The Kemps also argue that their Missoula attorney, Darla Keck, was working for them on a contingency basis, meaning that she agreed to receive payment upon completion of the pending civil lawsuit. The NCAA noted that Keck is a shareholder in a Missoula law firm that leases a suite in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, making it "undisputed that the law firm meets the definition of a representative of the institution's athletics interests."

Violations stemming from Johnson and Kemp's arrests contributed to the NCAA's decision to place Grizzly football on three years probation. The program will also lose four scholarships and any wins tallied while Johnson or Kemp played after Oct. 23, 2011, will be vacated.

UM cooperated fully with the NCAA's investigation, which troubles O'Day. In light of what witnesses and the Kemp family have told him, in addition to the videos he's seen that were taken during the October 2011 house party, O'Day thinks that UM administrators should have taken a stronger stand in support of its student-athletes.

"The university did not want to fight a battle with the NCAA over what was right—and the right was to tell the real story about why any of these things happened. That was very disappointing to me as a former administrator and equally as important as an alum," O'Day says. "I think they just wanted to get it over with. And I can understand that. But I don't think they did justice to the hundred members of that team and the coaches. I don't think they did go to bat for them."

UM's Vice President for Integrated Communications Peggy Kuhr notes that the NCAA faulted the football program for what occurred after Johnson and Kemp were taken into custody, rather than what happened while they were being detained. "I don't think that the NCAA were looking at the arrests per se," Kuhr says.

Those two incidents are not easy to separate, however. When talking with the Standard-Examiner, Pflugrad said he didn't report the particulars of how Johnson and Kemp were bailed out to UM administrators because the situation was so chaotic and emotionally charged. "It was just down on the totem pole because of all the other things that were going on with these mitigating circumstances," he told the paper. "It was somewhat like a war zone at the time. The minute I knew none of our coaches had bailed players out, I moved on from that."

After the 2011 Taser incident and his arrest, Gerald Kemp was briefly suspended from the football team. He was also injured, which kept him from playing for much of that season. At the start of 2012 season, UM athletic officials declared him ineligible to take to the field. George Kemp says that while the family repeatedly asked for an explanation of Gerald's ineligibility, they received little information in return. "We spent months trying to get them to tell us why they were suspending him," George Kemp says.

At the end of the 2012 season, Gerald was reinstated, enabling him to play in the team's last three games.

Despite the controversy, Gerald Kemp has returned to UM this semester to finish the final two classes required for him to complete a bachelor's degree in organizational communication. The events of the past two years have made returning to Missoula from his California home somewhat daunting, he says. "But I'm ready to face it."

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