The release of body cam footage stemming from the tasing of Ash River business owner Justin Ebel has largely confirmed what we have suspected from the beginning about this troubling incident at Voyageurs National Park: The assault on Mr. Ebel was absolutely unnecessary, unjustified, and put both private property and the public safety at risk.
In a 14-minute, 24-second segment of body cam footage, released in response to a Timberjay Freedom of Information Act request, it’s clear that Mr. Ebel was resistant to a demand by the two park rangers that one of his houseboats, then piloted by an elderly couple, reverse course near a narrows and submit to “a law enforcement contact,” shortly after Mr. Ebel had pulled their rental craft from rocks on Lake Kabetogama.
There were gusty winds that day and Mr. Ebel was working to bring his boat and guests to the sheltered waters of Sullivan Bay, where he could inspect the craft and provide any further needed assistance. Mr. Ebel informed the park rangers of his intent, which was a reasonable and safe plan of action under the circumstances and said they could make their contact with the houseboat once it was safely parked.
“No, that’s not how this is going to work,” said one of the two rangers 12 seconds into the encounter with Mr. Ebel, immediately establishing that the two rangers were spoiling for a fight.
Forty-nine seconds later, one of the rangers tossed one of the boat’s rubber bumpers over the side, indicating their intent to board Mr. Ebel’s boat from within the first minute of contact. One minute and 45 seconds later, Ranger Steve Pederson jumped aboard Ebel’s boat, immediately grabbed him by the neck from behind and wrestled him to the floor of his boat, while Ranger Ryan Houghton tased him twice.
Throughout that initial roughly two-and-a-half minutes of interaction, there was zero effort by the park rangers to accommodate Mr. Ebel’s legitimate concerns about the safety of his guests on the houseboat or take anything other than a confrontational approach. Their only effort to “de-escalate” the situation was to scream at Mr. Ebel to “Calm Down!” an action guaranteed to elicit exactly the opposite reaction.
There was no need for law enforcement contact with the houseboat in any case. Park Service documents obtained by the Timberjay show the couple was never suspected of any violation of the law that would require a contact. We’ve asked the Park Service repeatedly to explain the need for contact with the houseboat and have received no response, whatsoever.
It appears this purported desire for a contact was a mere ruse to disguise the officers’ real motivation— to take down an individual who they viewed as resistant to law enforcement in the park.
As revealed in some of the documents the Timberjay obtained, the rangers noted that Ebel had suggested that park rangers were lazy while speaking on a marine band radio the prior summer. Ranger Pederson had already had an altercation with Mr. Ebel over a snowmobiling violation the previous winter. In their reports of the incident, the rangers claimed they were trying to avoid Mr. Ebel because he was known to be aggressive around law enforcement. Instead, as the body cam footage reveals, they made every effort to get in his face, by making unsafe, unnecessary, and unreasonable demands. At no point did they offer assistance which could have easily defused the situation. Indeed, it had all the hallmarks of a set-up.
In the end, of course, they never bothered to make a law enforcement contact with the couple on the houseboat until several days later, well after they had left Voyageurs National Park. At that point, park officials were working on their prosecution of Mr. Ebel.
In the immediate aftermath of the assault last June 25, Mr. Ebel asked why they had taken such violent action. All the officers could say was he was “interfering in an agency function.” In truth, the rangers were the ones interfering, and their actions created a needlessly violent altercation that could have led to serious injury or death, and that has contributed to a growing image problem for Voyageurs National Park.
The body cam footage from this incident shows a side of law enforcement that has become increasingly concerning to many Americans. Law enforcement should be there to protect and serve the public, not engage in testosterone-fueled displays of arrogance, impatience, and violence.
The public isn’t always going to be perfectly accommodating, particularly when law enforcement officials are viewed as abusing their authority. Having a badge isn’t a license to assault people to satisfy one’s ego. These two officers clearly have no business representing the National Park Service. They should be fired. Today.
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