Wrongly arrested Black man sues a Georgia city and police officers for excessive force and injury

Video shows the moment police in Valdosta, Georgia slammed a man to the ground and broke his wrist before it turned out that he was not the person they were looking for.

Posted: Jun 27, 2020 9:51 AM
Updated: Jun 27, 2020 9:51 AM

A Black man who was slammed to the ground as he was wrongly arrested is suing the Georgia city of Valdosta and numerous Valdosta Police Department officers for excessive force and for violating his civil rights, according to court documents.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in federal court, Antonio Arnelo Smith, a Valdosta resident, also accused the police department of illegal arrest, false detention, assault as well as battery and is seeking $700,000 in a settlement.

The city attorney was served with a copy of the lawsuit on Monday and "the city has not had time to review the document and therefore cannot comment on the content of the suit," according to a VPD statement released the same day.

An updated comment had not been issued from the city attorney as of Thursday afternoon. Ashlyn Johnson, a spokesperson for the city of Valdosta told CNN she expected a new statement to be issued Thursday night.

VPD released a five-minute body camera video of the incident from Sergeant Bill Wheeler. Nathaniel Haugabrook II, an attorney representing Smith, sent CNN an 11-minute body camera video from Officer Dominic Henry.

'You broke my wrist'

Haugabrook told CNN over the phone Thursday that the incident on February 8 began when an employee at the Walgreens on North Ashley called 911 because a man was asking customers for money at the location.

Haugabrook said that after one officer approached the man in question, another customer told a separate officer that the man who had been harassing them had walked down the street.

Haugabrook said that his client was down the street when Henry approached him and asked for his identification. Smith complied with the officer and handed over his ID.

In body camera video from Henry provided to CNN by Haugabrook, Smith is seen talking to the officer, telling him that he was at the location for a Western Union for his sister and they know him.

He tells the officer that he hasn't done anything and to call his sister in Florida for confirmation of his story.

The video shows another officer, identified to CNN by Haugabrook as Wheeler, his badge is also visible in the video, come up behind Smith and put him in a bear hug.

Smith asks "What are you doing?" and Wheeler says, "Listen to him and put your hands behind your back," before he slams him to the ground, gets on top of him and cuffs him.

Haugabrook said his client was unable to put his hands behind his back because of how Wheeler was holding him. Haugabrook told CNN that because of how he was being held, Smith's wrist was broken when he was slammed to the ground by Wheeler.

"I don't think anyone can listen to his crying and wailing the agony he's in without their heart dropping," Haugabrook said of the video.

While he's on the ground, Smith is heard crying out, "Oh my god! You broke my wrist," before an officer says, "Stop" and "It might be broke."

Smith continues to cry and wail saying "Oh Jesus, it hurts," over and over again before the officers take one cuff off.

"This is the other guy. The guy with the warrant is over there," Henry tells the other three and points down the road.

Smith is told by the officers to stay on the ground.

Henry then discusses the misunderstanding with Wheeler saying, "I thought I had missed something."

"I thought he was the one with the warrant," Wheeler says before walking away.

Henry is then heard saying under his breath "God damn it," before another officer on the scene asks him what happened.

Henry then said when Wheeler told him to put his hands behind his back he "thought he had missed something."

The officers are seen giving Smith back his ID and letting him up. One officer asks him if he wants to see the ambulance and he says no. The officer asks him to hang out for a second and Smith cradles his arm, the video shows.

Haugabrook told CNN his client refused medical attention at the scene because he was scared and wanted to go home after the incident.

Later in the evening Smith did go to a hospital where they confirmed that his wrist was broken, Haugabrook said.

Information conveyed over was misinterpreted

A statement from Valdosta Police posted to Facebook said "the VPD was dispatched to the Walgreens at 2815 North Ashley Street in reference to a report of a male outside the business harassing customers, screaming loudly, and asking customers for money. The subject was reported to be an African American male wearing a brown hoodie and blue pants." The statement indicates that two officers began independently searching the scene and found two different men who matched the description, one, who turned out not to be the man that the 911 call was made about, had felony warrants. The other, who was the subject of the 911 call, did not, but information conveyed over the police band was misinterpreted.

"The responding officer believed this individual was the subject of the 911 call and was the individual with felony warrants... approached the subject and advised him to place his hands behind his back. The subject did not and began to resist by pulling his arms forward and tensing his body. At this point, the responding officer used a physical control technique to place the subject on the ground so handcuffs could be applied. This procedure involves the officer going (to) the ground with the subject. During handcuffing, the responding officer noticed that in the fall to ground, the subject appeared to have sustained an injury to his wrist. Upon recognition of the injury, the responding officer and other officers immediately removed the handcuffs, rolled the subject over and notified the dispatcher to send EMS," a VPD statement posted on Facebook said.

"While the subject was being (taken) out of the handcuffs, the responding officer learned that while the individual was the subject of the 911 dispatch, he was not the subject with the felony warrants. Upon learning this, the responding officer notified his supervisor of the incident. EMS arrived to evaluate the subject's injuries but he declined medical treatment and stated that he wished to leave. The subject was then released from the scene," VPD said.

CNN has reached out to the International Union of Police Associations to comment on the incident but has yet to hear back from the organization.

"We had the right person stopped, it's just unfortunate that the communication, when you got multiple officers on the same call, there is some miscommunication during radio traffic. And those are things that yes, we can work on that as an agency, and work on continuing to train our officers better and better communication skills with each other. But again we did have the right guy stopped that was causing the problem at Walgreens, it's just unfortunate he was not the one with the felony warrants," Valdosta Police Chief Leslie Manahan told CNN affiliate WALB.

The police department said although it did not receive any filed complaints following the incident, the shift supervisor was nonetheless notified, prompting a review process of the incident by the officer's supervisor, Patrol Bureau Commander, Internal Affairs Division and Chief of Police.

"It's unfortunately a horrible situation but on behalf of the Valdosta police department and our officers, there was absolutely no malicious intent," Manahan said.

Haugabrook tells CNN that there was no reason for that level of force to be used on anyone, as the charges and warrants for the other man were all misdemeanors. Additionally, he said his client was non combative and was simply having a conversation with the officer when the incident occurred.

Haugabrook also said he believes the officers were compelled to lie in their reports to cover up the actions of Wheeler.

"We believe that they fabricated their reports," Haugabrook said, adding that he believes the officers committed "conspiracy and collusion to create a false report to justify what Sgt. Wheeler did" because he is their supervisor.

CNN has not been able to reach the officers or sergeant involved in the incident for comment.

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