Richmond police officials say they’re reviewing YouTube videos that appear to show an officer shove and repeatedly choke a man who approached him at the Shamrock the Block festival Saturday afternoon in Shockoe Bottom.
Witnesses say police attacked the man unprovoked, and whether the officer’s actions were justified became the subject of debate this week after the videos -- including one titled, “Cops choke out drunk at shamrock the block 2013” -- were posted Sunday.
The videos will be part of a review of the officer’s actions conducted by the Richmond Police Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, spokeswoman Dionne Waugh says. The department declined to identify the officer involved in the altercation caught on video, but say he remains on active-duty status.
A total of five were arrested on misdemeanor charges at the annual St. Patrick’s Day street festival, which drew upward of 40,000 green-clad revelers to the Bottom. Waugh says four of the arrests -- three on charges of drunk in public and one for obstructing justice -- were connected to the fight captured on video.
The footage starts as police break up an initial fight between party goers, showing officers while they talk to a 20-something wearing nothing but green boxer briefs. After several minutes, a man identified by one witness as Jason Dotson appears in the frame and initiates a brief verbal exchange with an officer. The video pans away briefly, and then shows the officer take several quick steps toward Dotson. The officer grabs the man’s neck and wrestles him against a wall.
Dotson fights back, and at one point pins the officer to the ground before two other officers intervene, including a police sergeant wielding a telescoping nightstick. The previously pinned officer then puts the man in a chokehold while another sits on his back and the sergeant takes several swings at Dotson’s legs with the nightstick.
Billy Johnson, a witness who says he knows most of the men involved in the initial altercation, says Dotson approached police to ask about the status of his brother, who at that point was handcuffed and seated nearby with a bloody nose. Johnson says the only physical contact between Dotson and the officer was a tap on the shoulder.
“He went to get the cop’s attention,” says Johnson, 22, of Colonial Heights. “It wasn’t like he was raising his voice or threatening the police in any manner. He was asking the cops what was going on with his brother.”
Steve Benjamin, a Richmond defense lawyer, says whether the officer’s actions were justified isn’t clear from the video alone. “Looking at this, I cannot say the officer was acting inappropriately,” he says. “One thing that’s obvious is that the only people who will be able to accurately assess the officer’s actions will be those who are able to interview witnesses involved, including the officers, to determine all the facts -- all the surrounding circumstances.
Other Richmonders’ reactions to the video were varied and numerous, with many voicing outrage at what they viewed as police brutality. One commenter on the YouTube video writes: “The male cop needs to control his anger. Just because you’re a cop doesn’t give you the right to beat the shit out of someone because they touched you.”
Others back the police, who they say showed great restraint. As another commenter puts it: “These police officers actually remained quite cool while dealing with a boatload of douche bags getting up in their faces while trying to deal with a situation.”