A Georgia man is suing the Valdosta, Georgia, police department for $700,000 after he was wrongfully detained and aggressively handled.
According to the Essence.com, the federal suit was filed last Friday by Antonio Arnelo Smith, who alleges Valdosta police officers detained and injured him during an encounter in February that ended up being a case of mistaken identity.
The lawsuit names Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson, members of the Valdosta City Council, Valdosta Police Chief Leslie Manahan, three Valdosta patrolmen, and one police sergeant as defendants.
During the encounter Smith says he was thrown to the ground and cuffed because authorities believed he was a suspect in a panhandling case. Body camera footage of the encounter shows the incident began peacefully: a Black officer told Smith someone reported suspicious activity in the area. Smith told the officer he was visiting a Western Union inside a Walgreens because his sister was going to send him money.
As Smith gives the officer his ID and explains why he’s in the area, Valdosta Police Sgt. Billy Wheeler walks up to Smith, restrains him in a “bear hug,” and within seconds of telling him to put his hands behind his back, slams him to the ground.
As the officer cuffs Smith, confusion arises as other officers wonder why Smith is being detained. Wheeler, who then admits approaching the scene and detaining Smith without asking any questions, admits he thought Smith was a suspect who had a warrant. The Black officer then tells Wheeler he is not that man.
“It’s two different people,” the patrolman says. “That’s why I was trying to figure out if I had missed something when you told him to put his hands behind his back.”
The city of Valdosta released a statement Monday: “The City of Valdosta and the Valdosta Police Department takes [sic] 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.”
Americans today are overwhelmingly in support of police reform. Police departments, however, have continued to fight claims of brutality and racism, even though it continues to show up in the news.
Earlier this week, three North Carolina officers were fired after recordings of them using the N-word and threatening the lives of African Americans were discovered.