VALDOSTA, Ga. — Antonio Arnelo Smith was walking along a Georgia roadway in February when the first Valdosta police officer approached him.
As Officer Dominic Henry questioned Smith about panhandling reported outside a nearby Walgreens, a second officer, Sgt. Billy Wheeler, came up behind Smith and, without warning, placed him in a bear hug.
Moments later, Wheeler slammed Smith to the ground.
“Oh my God, you broke my wrist!” Smith, 46, cried out as two more officers arrived and helped Wheeler hold down Smith.
As Smith cried and screamed in pain, Wheeler advised him he was under arrest for outstanding felony warrants.
The only problem: Wheeler had the wrong man.
The entire interaction was captured on body camera footage. The allegations against Wheeler and the other officers are laid out in a federal lawsuit Smith’s attorney filed last month.
“When you see that video, you can’t help but say this is a travesty,” Nathaniel Haugabrook, one of Smith’s attorneys, told The Associated Press. “Nobody should be done that way.”
The civil rights lawsuit names as defendants the four officers involved in the stop, the police chief, the mayor, city council members, the city itself and the police department.
Haugabrook said he believes his client was stopped simply because he is Black. Though Henry is Black, Wheeler and the other two officers named in the suit are white.
“Obviously it has some racial tones to it,” he told the AP.
Valdosta police Chief Leslie Manahan argued in a statement last month that officers did their jobs and, despite no charges being filed against Smith, that they had the right person regarding the panhandling.
“We did have the right guy stopped that was causing the problem at Walgreens,” Manahan told WALB in Albany. “It’s just unfortunate he was not the one with the felony warrants.”
She cited miscommunications in radio traffic as the cause of the problem.
“Those are things that yes, we can work on that as an agency, and work to continue training our officers better and better communication skills with each other,” the chief said.
Smith’s violent encounter with police stayed below the public radar until Haugabrook filed the federal lawsuit June 19. Valdosta police officials issued a lengthy statement a few days later, along with one officer’s body camera footage.
That footage, taken from Wheeler’s camera, fails to show the actual takedown of Smith because when Wheeler placed him in a bear hug, Smith’s back was pressed against the lens.
See the initial body camera footage released by Valdosta police officials below.
Smith was at Walgreens around noon Feb. 8 awaiting some money his sister was sending him via Western Union, according to a March 20 letter, called an ante litem notice, Haugabrook sent to Valdosta city officials warning of the impending lawsuit.
Both Henry and Officer Rachel Hinton had gone to the pharmacy in response to the call about a panhandler bothering customers. Each would encounter a man fitting the description given by employees: a Black man wearing a brown hoodie, according to police.
Court documents state that Hinton stopped a man for questioning on the north side of the pharmacy. She asked Henry to check the west side of the building for anyone else who could be the alleged panhandler.
En route to the side of the building, Henry encountered a customer who told him the man had walked south out of the parking lot.
Read attorney Nathaniel Haugabrook’s ante litem notice to Valdosta city and police officials below.
“While (Hinton) was running the identification provided by the (first) subject, it was learned that he had active felony arrest warrants,” Valdosta police officials said. “This police band communication between the first officer and dispatch was overheard by other officers arriving at the location.
“At approximately same time, (Henry), on the opposite side of the store, located (Smith) walking in a southern direction away from Walgreens. The officer made contact with the subject, explaining to him that he was investigating a report of a suspicious person at Walgreens.”
Smith gave Henry his identification and explained why he was in the area, according to the letter submitted with the federal lawsuit. In the video, Smith questions why he was stopped and appears upset but does not appear to pose a threat to the officer.
“I’m waiting for the Western Union,” Smith tells Henry. “Call my sister right now in Florida. You have a cellphone. Call her.”
“Call who?” Henry asks.
“Call my sister in Florida,” Smith responds.
He pleads with Henry: “Don’t do this.”
At that point, Wheeler, who had quietly come up behind Smith, grabs him by both arms from behind and puts him in a bear hug. Wheeler never announced his presence to Smith.
“What are you doing?” a startled Smith says. “Oh my God, what are you doing?”
Wheeler tells him to put his hands behind his back, a command he cannot follow because his arms are pinned at his sides.
“Put your hands behind your back like you’re told,” Wheeler says, his face resting on Smith’s back as he holds him in place.
A bewildered Smith again asks what Wheeler is doing, crying out as the officer picks him up and slams him onto the ground.
Moments later, as the other two officers, identified in the lawsuit as Patrick Barrett and Hudson Durden, try to help get Smith into handcuffs, Smith cries out that Wheeler has broken his wrist.
“Yeah, he might be broke,” Wheeler is heard saying.
Watch the body camera footage obtained by The Associated Press below.
About a minute later, the officers remove the handcuffs and call for an ambulance. Smith questions why he is being arrested.
“We have a warrant for your arrest,” one officer tells him.
Henry corrected the officer, indicating that the man with active warrants had been taken into custody by Hinton.
“The other guy is over there,” Henry says, pointing toward the pharmacy. “They pointed out two different people. They got the guy with a warrant.”
He points down at Smith.
“This guy, I just got contact with him,” he says.
The video shows that the officers let Smith up off the ground. According to court documents, he left before the ambulance arrived.
“As the video clearly demonstrates, each of the officers’ facial expressions and comments confirm that a grave and serious error had taken place when Sgt. Wheeler arrested and slammed Mr. Smith to the ground,” Haugabrook’s letter to Valdosta officials read. “Although an ambulance was called to the scene, Mr. Smith, scared and wanting to get away from the officers, refused treatment and walked away from the scene holding his arm.”
He later went on his own to South Georgia Medical Center, where doctors confirmed that both his radius and ulna, the long bones of the forearm, were fractured at the wrist, court records show. According to Haugabrook, the fractures did not heal properly because Smith was unable to find transportation to the specialist he was referred to.
Smith’s lawsuit accuses Wheeler and Henry of falsifying their reports on the incident. Wheeler’s report stated that Henry asked Smith to put his hands behind his back, which the video proves was not the case.
The statement from Valdosta police officials also contains inconsistencies with the video footage that paint Smith’s encounter with the officers in a false light.
“The responding officer (Wheeler) approached the subject and advised him to place his hands behind his back,” the statement read. “The subject did not and began to resist by pulling his arms forward and tensing his body.”
The video shows that while Smith questioned what Wheeler was doing, he did not try to resist or pull away.
The city’s statement also stated that officials there are “fully committed to transparency,” though at that time, they released only a portion of the existing body camera footage.
The lawsuit argues that neither Henry nor Wheeler had justification for physically restraining Smith because they had not determined whether he had committed a crime or if he had outstanding warrants.
At one point in the footage, Wheeler asks Henry whether Walgreens wanted to obtain a criminal trespass warrant against Smith, the lawsuit states.
“I don’t know. I had, I hadn’t even asked them,” Henry responds, according to the document.
Manahan defended Wheeler’s actions to WALB last month.
“He still thinks the subject has felony warrants. When you are dealing with someone with felony warrants, you kinda want to move quick, really for the safety of everyone involved,” Manahan told the news station.
Read Antonio Arnelo Smith’s federal lawsuit below.
Wheeler has been on the Valdosta police force for nearly 23 years, the lawsuit states. In that time, he has taken “use of force” courses annually.
“Since 2017, Defendant Wheeler has also received training in the Governor’s Initiative – De-Escalation Options for Gaining Compliance,” the document states.
Haugabrook is arguing that the Valdosta Police Department routinely receives calls about suspicious people, many of whom have committed no crime. In those situations, officers’ actions are restricted by constitutional rules.
“Here, Defendant Wheeler violated those rules whereas Mr. Smith had committed no crime that would justify his arrest. Defendant Henry, the lead investigating officer on the scene was simply checking Mr. Smith’s identification and questioning him to determine if he was the suspicious person complained about at Walgreens,” the lawsuit states. “Even if Mr. Smith had been the suspicious person, the consequences would have been a criminal trespass warning to stay off Walgreens’ premises.”
The lawsuit claims illegal seizure, unlawful detention, excessive force, assault and battery by excessive force, false arrest/false imprisonment, negligent hiring and training on the part of the department, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress and conspiracy to violate Smith’s rights.
Smith also accuses Henry of failure to intervene.
“Defendant Henry had a realistic opportunity to prevent Defendant Wheeler from grabbing and slamming Mr. Smith to the ground. It would have been as simple as holding out his hand or saying, ‘Stop,’ the lawsuit states. “Defendant Henry did neither.”
The lawsuit does not specify the monetary damages being sought. In the March letter to Valdosta officials, however, Haugabrook presented a settlement demand of $700,000.
Haugabrook is seeking more than money for his client, however. According to the AP, the attorney wants to see meaningful change in the Valdosta Police Department.
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