To Get Respect, Show Respect

Khalah Sabbakhan, after her encounter with Richmond police. Photo credit: Daniel Sangjib Min, Richmond Times-Dispatch

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

There are frequent posts on this blog citing the low morale of police officers and officers quitting or retiring as a result. (For one example, see the post from earlier today.) However, for some reason, those posts often fail to report on the continued bad behavior of police.

Early last month, a 45-year old Black woman encountered two white police officers questioning a woman who appeared to be homeless near the Sauer Center in Richmond. (In order to keep the people involved in this incident straight in my narrative, I will refer to the woman being questioned as homeless, although it is not certain that was her status.) The subsequent actions were recorded by the Black woman involved and another eyewitness who started recording after she heard the first woman pleading for help.

The first woman asked the officers what the problem was. Told that they were arresting the homeless woman on a prior trespassing warrant, she began recording the incident with her cell phone. She told the officers she was concerned about the homeless woman’s safety and encouraged the homeless woman to come with her. She also asked the officers to show her the warrant. The officers told her that she would also be arrested if she continued to ask the homeless woman to leave. One of the officers then left to ask a property manager to ban her from the property. As the property manager approached, one officer knocked the cell phone from the woman’s hand and both officers knocked her to the pavement and put her in handcuffs.

The video from the second eyewitness shows two officers holding the woman on the pavement and five additional officers showing up. The second video records the woman as protesting, “Please help me… I’m hurting. You dragged me to the ground and beat me up.” One of the officers replies, “No, you did that to yourself.”

In a statement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Richmond Police Department said the woman was arrested for trespassing and obstruction of justice. “As a result of her actions, she sustained a minor injury,” and was taken to the hospital for treatment before going to jail, the spokesman said  Medical records the woman shared with the RTD show that the “minor injuries” consisted of a possible broken elbow, as well as cuts and bruises on her head, arms, and legs.

The woman claims that, upon obtaining her address after she was arrested, “They said I had no business there if I live near Gilpin Court.” (For those readers not familiar with Richmond, Gilpin Court is one of the public housing projects and the incident occurred in the Sauer Center, in which a Whole Foods market is located. Draw your own conclusions.)

At a court hearing earlier this week, one of the officers involved was absent due to illness. Nevertheless the judge refused to grant the prosecution’s request for a continuance. Subsequently, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office dropped all charges.

My Soapbox

This relatively minor incident and the manner in which it was handled raises a lot of questions and issues.

  1. I don’t doubt that the woman who was ultimately arrested and injured in the process was making a complete nuisance of herself before being arrested. The police were acting legitimately in responding to a trespassing complaint that morning and trying to execute a prior arrest warrant. The woman was, at some point, probably interfering with their actions. But, was it really necessary for two officers to slam a slender 45-year old woman to the pavement and pin her to it while handcuffing her?  Does the Richmond Police Department want us to believe that one of their highly trained officers cannot alone arrest someone without committing such violence? There is no evidence that she resisted arrest; she was not even charged with resisting arrest. There is no evidence, or claim, that she posed a threat to the officers or to the public. And, why did those two officers need backup from at least five additional officers?
  2. As for the “homeless” woman, the property manager had filed a complaint against her a few days previously, saying that she had vandalized property and had threatened to “get a gun and shoot” the manager after she was asked to leave. Certainly, merchants should not have to tolerate people hanging around their property, vandalizing it, possibly intimidating customers, and threatening the merchants themselves. But, on the face it, at least, it is reasonable to suspect that the woman suffered from some sort of mental illness. What purpose would have been served in arresting her, other than tying up a jail bed and court time? This was clearly a case where de-escalation was called for with the involvement of mental health professionals, as was advocated in prior General Assembly sessions.
  3. As for all those law-enforcement officers quitting, maybe it is not a matter of poor morale resulting from not being supported by the public and their higher-ups. One could speculate that they are quitting because they no longer can get away with the behavior they have traditionally gotten away with. If they want the public to respect them, they need to quit slamming 45-year old, slightly built Black women to the pavement simply because they are being a nuisance.