Just feet from the mist of pepper spray, the screaming, the fury of swinging metal batons, a young boy stood casually and bounced his basketball.
Another day at Edgewood Court Apartments.
At the vortex of the rolling violence was Corey Hill, who moments before frantically tried to get the attention of a video cameraman to record the actions of Atlanta police arresting a man. But now it was Hill who had the officers’ full attention.
The episode was unremarkable in the East Atlanta neighborhood. Fights there are routine. That his violent struggle with cops was captured on video — rather than in bystanders’ over-heated and fuzzy accounts — makes it “Exhibit A” in a potential lawsuit against the city.
I got the tape from David Wolfe, a lawyer representing Hill, a 34-year-old father of three who believes police wronged him April 8, 2013, when they pushed him down a hill, put him in a headlock, slammed him to the ground, pepper-sprayed him at pointblank range and then beat him with fists and metal batons when he reacted violently to the pepper spray.
The boisterous crowd at the scene could consider themselves mayhem connoisseurs. In the previous 15 months, there were 718 calls for service at the complex — 222 concerning fights, four people shot, four stabbed. Police Chief George Turner gave those figures to the media two days after the incident and a day after a mini-riot there.
But I get ahead of myself.
The afternoon of that April day in 2013 was the funeral Dexter Browning, Corey Hill’s father. The family gathered at Hill’s mother’s house at the complex; his sister-in-law’s old boyfriend showed up, making her feel uncomfortable. She called cops, who came and arrested him, although he apparently wasn’t keen on going to the pokey. Therefore, police had to use extra body English to coax him into the waiting squad car.
As this occurred, residents gathered, yelling that the cops were beating the man up. Hill stood near the squad car’s rear, pointing at the scuffle and telling the videographer to capture the scene. The cameraman was from Copwatch, an organization that tapes police in action, trying to catch cops being extra enthusiastic in their actions.
After police shut the car door on the suspect, a lieutenant resembling a nose tackle shoved Hill, who had already moved away from the car, back even further. The lieutenant, obviously perturbed by chaos, then walked off and another cop took his place in front of Hill, who was now standing arm-in-arm with his wife, who was holding their 2-year-old son. The second officer shoved Hill and the two jawed, with Hill repeating that the officer walked up on him, not the other way around.
The camera moves away briefly, an F-bomb (don’t know by who but likely Hill) is uttered and the big lieutenant stalks back to Hill, who is now getting shoved down an incline. Suddenly, another officer swoops in from behind and takes Hill down rodeo-style, with a headlock. Within five seconds the lieutenant is straddling Hill’s waist while the other officer is on his shoulders yanking his dreadlocks.
And then comes the point that transforms the event from a take-down to a good old-fashioned beating.
‘After the pepper spray, I was like, “Run!”’
As the lieutenant struggles to cuff Hill, a third cop bends down and, from inches away, sprays Hill a couple times in the face. This causes the cop on Hill’s shoulders to jump away — he doesn’t want to get sprayed — and the lieutenant to lose his leverage. Hill, now blinded, stands up and becomes a whirling dervish, swinging his arms and twisting his torso violently to get away.
Looking at the video recently, Hill said, “After the pepper spray, I was like ‘Run! Get away from it!’ “
Another officer then sprays Hill, who responds by rushing that cop. He punches Hill in the face. Another cop sprays where Hill was and still another sprays where he might be going. The batons come out and he’s beaten and wrestled to the ground.
Hill again: “Every time they’re hitting me, I’m getting madder and madder. It was like a fight.”
A little more than a minute after it started, Hill lies face down, motionless, his hands covering his face.
Nearby, his wife and son were also pepper sprayed. His sister-in-law was taken to the ground and also arrested.
‘If you’re illegally arrested, you have a right to resist’
Ultimately, Hill was charged with two felony counts of obstruction of officers and a count of inciting a riot. (There was a disturbance, but not until the next night.) The obstruction charges are still pending. An internal affairs investigation cleared all officers of any wrongdoing.
“If you’re being illegally arrested, you have a right to resist,” argues Wolfe. “Here, they get aggressive with someone who is asking them questions. They didn’t need to throw him down in the first place.”
“Arguing with, cursing loudly at, or verbally interrupting an officer while making an arrest does not constitute the act of obstruction,” Wolfe said. He added that the first guy arrested was already in the car, handcuffed and in custody, when police turned their attention to Hill.
In a written statement, Chief Turner said, “Sometimes people subject to lawful arrest choose to ignore the instructions of police officers and impede their attempt to take them into custody. When this occurs, the result is often not pleasant to look at.”
I took the video to a retired FBI agent who has made a second career testifying for and against police officers in misconduct cases.
‘Everything done to him, he brought on himself’
Gary Robinette watched the tape a few times and concluded, “Everything he got done to him, he brought on himself. I didn’t see anything objectively unreasonable.”
I asked about the need to pepper spray a guy who’s face down under a couple big officers. They still didn’t have control, Robinette responded, and the pepper spray “was initiated to take the fight out of him.” He paused and then added, “It didn’t work.”
Robinette said a Taser would have stopped Hill without further physical damage. APD had just recently acquired some but had not given them to officers in that zone.
The old FBI guy added that Hill’s only defense “would be they didn’t have probable cause to arrest him. I don’t know if they did or didn’t.”
It’s not clear whether Hill’s criminal case will go to court or whether he will sue. It is clear that cameras help situations involving police — both for the officers and the public.
And the next day during the mini-riot at Edgewood Court, when angry residents pelted squad cars with bricks? Police might have learned a lesson from the day earlier: this time, they defused the situation.
“We made a decision to back out of the location as opposed to escalate the situation,” Chief Turner said at the time.