The Valdosta Police Department in Georgia has been sued for excessive force in a February incident that left a Black resident injured. On February 8, 46-year-old Antonio Arnelo Smith was mistaken as the suspect in a panhandling investigation and the lawsuit states his arm was broken during the police interaction that followed. He is seeking $700,000 in compensation and punitive damages.
The city of Valdosta posted on social media Monday that it was looking into the incident. It released a 5-minute portion of the bodycam footage along with a statement:
The statement reads in part:
The City of Valdosta is fully committed to transparency. To achieve that goal, the VPD has released the full body camera footage of the responding officer which can be viewed on the city’s website. The City of Valdosta and the Valdosta Police Department takes any report of any injury to a citizen seriously. Although there was no complaint filed with VPD, Once the shift supervisor was notified it prompted the review process of the incident by the Officer’s Supervisor, Patrol Bureau Commander, Internal Affairs Division and Chief of Police.
The full 11-minute video was provided to the Valdosta Daily Times and is available on this Twitter thread.
Smith is represented by attorney Nathaniel Haugabrook of Copeland, Haugabrook and Walker, who is saying the incident constitutes a civil rights violation. The lawsuit, which was filed on Friday in federal court, names as defendants Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson, members of the Valdosta City Council, Valdosta Police Chief Leslie Manahan, three Valdosta patrolmen and one police sergeant.
The Incident Began When Officers Responded to Reports of Panhandling at a Pharmacy
The police statement indicates that the Valdosta Police Department (VPD) was dispatched to a Walgreens pharmacy on North Ashley Street. The VPD had received 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 explains that the two officers searched the area “independently of each other.” One of the two officers located a man by the Walgreens parking lot and ran his identification, discovering that he had active felony arrest warrants. The officer mentioned this on the police band communication with dispatch.
At the same time, the other officer on the scene, on the other side of the pharmacy, found Smith walking away from the store wearing a brown hoodie and blue pants, the police statement indicates. It continues, saying the officer explained to Smith that they were investigating a suspicious person at Walgreens. At this point, the statement outlines that another officer arrived on the scene “after hearing information over the police band… The responding officer believed this individual was the subject of the 911 call and was the individual with felony warrants based on his observations of the subject’s interaction with the second officer.”
This officer approached Smith and told him to place his hands behind his back, the statement clarifies. It indicates that Smith “began to resist by pulling his arms forward and tensing his body.” The responding officer used “a physical control technique” to bring Smith to the ground and place handcuffs on him.
The Lawsuit States Excessive Force Was Used & Smith’s Civil Rights Were Violated
The lawsuit was filed on grounds of conspiracy to create a false report, excessive force, false detention, false arrest and assault and battery, according to the Valdosta Daily Times. Smith’s attorney argues that the officer “falsified his report to reflect Smith was told to put his hands behind his back before the sergeant touched him.”
The lawsuit adds that Smith suffered distal radial and ulnar fractures and was discharged from the hospital after being fitted for a sling. It states that the officer’s use of force was “unnecessary and illegal” because there was no indication that he was armed, that he had committed a crime or was about to and that he was a threat to the officers.
The bodycam footage shows the first officer telling Smith that he’s investigating suspicious activity in the area. Smith tells him he was waiting to receive a money transfer from his sister. Smith can also be seen on video complying with the officer’s request for identification. At that point, a police sergeant arrives and walks up to Smith. The video appears to show the sergeant grabbing Smith’s right wrist before reaching behind him to grab his left arm.
As the sergeant wraps his arms around Smith, lifts him and brings him flat on the ground, Smith says, “I wasn’t doing anything.” The officers remove the handcuffs when they realize Smith is injured but tell him there’s a warrant for his arrest. At that point, the officer who first confronted Smith clarifies that the suspect with the warrant is on the other side of the building.