As children we are often given the narrative of the brave police force that protects our city from harm. Many children admire the work of these officers so much that it is their greatest ambition to serve as one when they grow up. Even as adults we rely on the police to protect us in times of trouble and shield us from danger. For these reasons it is unsettling to many members of our community when an officer is accused of misconduct. Yet, several times over the past few months officers accused of wrongdoing have made the headlines. There has hardly been a month since Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson was accused of using excessive force that another officer’s name has not appeared in the news next to an injured citizen. While our country is no stranger to media sensationalization, there are undeniably people being injured at the hands of those who serve and protect. In fact, the celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day at the University of Virginia were cut short for one student as his arrest left him with blood flowing from his face.
“How Could This Happen?”
As the celebrations at UVA were in full swing last week, one student, Martest Johnson, could be found standing on a sidewalk outside of a local bar. A bar employee approached Johnson and asked him for identification. Johnson handed over his valid state ID that said he was 20 years old. The employee then asked Johnson to verify his zip code, as is typical for bars that cater to college students. This is where the facts from the officers and Johnson are in dispute. According to Johnson he recited the zip code for his mother’s current address and not the zip code shown on his ID. According to officers, Johnson was denied entry into the bar and they then approached to question him. Note that these officers are Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) agents, not state police. The ABC officers took Johnson to the ground before handcuffing him and the result was captured by the cell phone cameras of bystanders; Johnson’s head was cut open and he was bleeding profusely from his face. At the conclusion of the graphic video, Johnson can be heard yelling at officers, “How could this happen?” along with a few other choice words.
While it appears that many in the UVA community, and across the country, are not ready to declare this a “race issue,” most seem to agree that it appears to be an issue of excessive force. University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan contacted the governor’s office after she says she was disturbed by the images of the arrest. Later she would state, “I felt it in my stomach. Just seeing blood run down that young man’s face, I wanted to know what happened.” Governor Terry McAuliffe almost immediately ordered an independent investigation into the matter by the Virginia State Police. The investigation is twofold, consisting of both an administrative review and a criminal investigation. According to the ABC authorities the agents involved in this incident are being restricted to administrative duties only. As it turns out, the state does not have enough evidence to charge Johnson for the alleged use of a fake ID. He will, however, appear in court on March 26 to respond to misdemeanor charges of obstruction of justice without force and public intoxication.
Our attorneys both respect and admire the work of officers and agents who protect us from harm. At the same time we recognize that the use of force by these agents can get out of hand. Holding everyone responsible for their actions protects us all.