Police vehicle strikes protesters

On Saturday night, a Richmond police officer drove an SUV over a curb and through protesters who were blocking the vehicle’s path near the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue.

Her body shaking, her eyes wide and wet, Sierra Shoosmith sat on a curb at the intersection of North Allen and Monument avenues Saturday night.

She was trying to make sense of what she had just seen: A Richmond police officer had driven a marked SUV through gathered protesters.

No one appeared seriously injured, but Shoosmith didn’t know that. She was in shock, according to a field medic who treated her at the scene.

“They’re supposed to protect us,” she said, her voice shaking nearly as much as her body. “I don’t know; my whole worldview just kind of rolled upside down in that moment.”

Another protester, whom she didn’t know, rubbed Shoosmith’s shoulder and said: “This is it. This is why we’re here.”

Shoosmith was among thousands of demonstrators who had been marching, at that point on Saturday night, for 16 straight nights in Richmond protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Protests continued Sunday and Monday nights, further fueled by incidents with Richmond police.

Shoosmith said police brutality was something she unquestionably opposed, but had never seen in person until Saturday.

“Like I know it’s real, but seeing it in front of your face is totally different,” she said.

Richmond police said the officer who was driving the SUV “was reportedly assaulted through an open window” and that protesters had trapped the vehicle and damaged it. The department said some of the protesters involved could face criminal charges.

But elements of the department’s timeline appeared to conflict with videos of the incident posted to social media, as well as the accounts of two Richmond Times-Dispatch reporters who witnessed the incident. Police did not respond to detailed questions from the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the incident on either Sunday or Monday.

Two prominent defense attorneys and the ACLU of Virginia’s legal director criticized the officer’s actions, saying that driving through the protesters constitutes use of deadly force and could amount to criminal assault.

Steven D. Benjamin and Betty Layne DesPortes, law partners who have each served as experts in their field on various boards, acknowledged that they didn’t have all the facts of the incident, but had reviewed the social media videos provided by police in a news release.

“We have seen no reported account, including the statement of the RPD, that justifies what we saw in the videos we’ve reviewed,” they said in a joint statement.

“The department is wrong that it can use deadly force where officers’ lives are not threatened,” they added. “A civilian doing the same thing would have been charged with some degree of criminal assault, and the felony of leaving the scene. The department is handling this in the least transparent and most aggravating way possible. It continues to frustrate justice, and it has failed to protect the constitutional right to protest. The department has used unwarranted force, and now even threatens charges related to this incident, thus discouraging any witness statements or complaints.”

In a tweet, the ACLU of Virginia said: “There’s no justified reason that this is necessary. Officers can no longer hide behind the lie that they’re serving & protecting. We’re calling for an investigation to hold the officers involved accountable.” In a letter sent Monday to the Richmond mayor, police chief and commonwealth’s attorney, the ACLU said it was yet another example of the “escalation of violence against protesters over the past two weeks.”

Eden Heilman, the organization’s legal director, said the incident “looks like use of excessive force.”

“This absolutely has to be investigated, preferably by an independent prosecutor, and I would think that this would be something where both disciplinary action as well as criminal charges should be on the table,” Heilman said.

On Sunday morning, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney tweeted that he has asked the city’s top prosecutor, Colette McEachin, to investigate what happened, along with other recent incidents. He also asked the that the Richmond Police Department place the officer who was driving on leave, but it’s unclear whether police did so.

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Twice last week, area police arrested two men after similar run-ins with protesters.

Early Friday, Richmond police detained several people equipped with assault-style rifles, handguns, ammunition and body armor after confronting protesters at the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue — the same location where the police officer drove through protesters the next night.

About 12:55 a.m. Friday, officers in the area of the Lee circle saw several pickup trucks approach a group that had dismounted their bicycles in the traffic lanes, police said.

“Words were exchanged between the individuals and the drivers of the pickup trucks,” police spokeswoman Amy Vu wrote in an email. “One pickup truck sped off and then another pickup truck ran over a bicycle while fleeing the area.”

Officers stopped three separate trucks in connection with the incident. One man was arrested and charged with possessing a firearm as a felon.

On June 7, a Hanover County man who claimed ties to the Ku Klux Klan was accused of driving a truck through protesters on Lakeside Avenue in Henrico County, near Vale Street. Authorities said Harry H. Rogers recklessly drove onto the median to get to the march, revved his engine at marching protesters and drove through the crowd, running over one man’s foot and causing a women to jump on the hood of his truck to avoid being hit.

Rogers, 36, has been charged with attempted malicious wounding, felony vandalism, and assault and battery. He is being held without bail.

In all three of the incidents, cyclists were blocking traffic from reaching marchers on foot. On Saturday, the police vehicle had slowly moved forward to the blockade of bicyclists, who had been blocking the intersection at the Lee statue for hours.

“Intentionally striking a person with a vehicle is routinely charged as a criminal assault, even when the driver’s actions are a response to being blocked by a pedestrian or cyclist,” Benjamin wrote in an email. “The only defense is that the use of that degree of force was reasonably necessary for self-defense. While Virginia law specifies certain instances when emergency vehicles being operated under emergency conditions and using emergency lights and a siren may disregard certain traffic regulations, none of those exceptions permit emergency vehicles to strike pedestrians or cyclists.”

The police SUV had its blue flashing lights on initially, but they were switched off and a floodlight turned on before the encounter. No siren was used, and officers could not be heard giving instructions to protesters.

DesPortes wrote in an email that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals “has repeatedly held that ‘a vehicle driven directly at a law enforcement officer constitutes a deadly weapon.’ The same principle should apply when an officer drives a vehicle directly at a person — it is the use of deadly force.”

Heilman, with the ACLU, said uneven applications of law are why police reforms have come to be such a rallying cry for protests across the country.

“It is easier for a person to be held criminally responsible for injuring a police officer than it is vice versa,” she said. “The culture for a very long time has been all around the country that police officers, for better or for worse, have been largely immune from liability or culpability criminally for certain conduct. As that shifts, it will be interesting to see how police departments respond.

“Why is it OK for one particular group of society, the police, to do some sort of behavior that it’s not OK for other people to do?” she added. “Certainly what we’re seeing across the country, in some jurisdictions, is that police officers are starting to be held criminally responsible for conduct, which previously they weren’t.”

In New York, two Buffalo police officers were charged with assault for pushing a 75-year-old man during protests, according to The New York Times.

“Normally that probably wouldn’t have risen to the level of criminal arrest. But it is now,” Heilman said. “All of this should be a wake-up call. Both to individual officers, as well as departments about how they are training their officers. As there is more accountability and increased transparency and better policy, then all of that will result in better training and that would trickle down.”

Mera Carle, a medic who has been offering support to protesters nearly every night since the protests began, said Saturday wasn’t the first time she had seen vehicles “weaponized ... against us” by police.

On May 30, the second night of unrest in Richmond, Carle said she watched police drive SUVs onto the medians of Monument Avenue several times as hundreds of people marched there. She caught the second occurrence on video.

“I made up my mind after the first time it happened that filming would be as important as the immediate first aid,” she said. “No one was run over, but people were hit. I was messaged on social media by someone saying I saved their life.”

Carle estimated that she has used $400 to $500 in first aid supplies since the protests began. Most treatments have been for tear gas, but others include sprains from running from police and panic attacks. She said the rushing vehicles triggered flashbacks to the deadly Unite the Right in Charlottesville in 2017.

“You can see it in their eyes,” Carle said. “These police tactics looked identical to what was used to result in the murder of Heather Heyer.”

Alex Fields Jr. was found guilty of first-degree murder and hate crimes after he drove into the Charlottesville crowd, killing Heyer. He was sentenced to life in prison, plus 419 years.

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