Black man in Valdosta accepts settlement in police brutality case

A Black man who sued the city of Valdosta last year after a police officer violently slammed him to the ground in a case of mistaken identity has accepted a settlement offer, according to reports.

Last week, the Valdosta City Council approved an offer of $350,000, however, attorneys for Antonio Arnelo Smith — who filed a civil rights lawsuit for excessive force in 2020 — wouldn’t reveal the amount of money the man agreed to, simply saying the victim was “satisfied.”

“We have reached a resolution, but we can’t discuss the actual settlement amount,” said Nathaniel Haugabrook, who represented Smith in the yearlong case.

Smith had initially sought compensation and punitive damages in the amount of $700,000.

As part of the settlement, the city will establish a citizens review board within 120 days to oversee police policies, procedures and make recommendations for changes. Smith is also required to drop all claims against the city in his lawsuit.

“We’re very pleased that the city has agreed to do that but I would say in addition to that, is that those who serve on this citizens review board, they need to take this position seriously and take it to heart because they are the ones who can help effectuate change,” Haugabrook said, according to the Valdosta Daily Times.

The violent takedown on Feb. 8, 2020, prompted Smith, now 47, to retain a lawyer and sue the Valdosta Police Department and multiple city officials, saying officers violated his civil rights.

Police body-cam footage of the incident surfaced amid the national outcry over police brutality against people of color, sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

In a legal filing last August, attorneys for Valdosta Police Lt. Billy Wheeler admitted the officer misidentified Smith as a wanted felon but said excessive force was justified because the man resisted arrest, describing Wheeler’s actions as “objectively reasonable.”

Video of the encounter showed Smith handing his driver’s license to a Black officer and complying when Wheeler walked up behind him, wrapped him in a bear hug and slammed him face-first to the ground.

“Oh, my God, you broke my wrist!” Smith screamed as two more white officers arrived and handcuffed him on the ground. When an officer told Smith he was being arrested on an outstanding warrant, he was immediately corrected by the first officer who said they had the wrong man.

At that point, the officers simply let Smith go after he declined to wait for an ambulance.

Haugabrook said he hopes to have the agreement with the city finalized in the next 10 days, the Daily Times reported.

“If we want to see change in how police address matters of this nature or deal with the citizenry, then it has to be changed at the top, and how do we effect change at the top, at the ballot box. I think it needs to be addressed by those who represent us out of each district,” he said.