Covington police are facing accusations of excessive force after a video showing an officer arresting a half-naked 26-year-old mother of two was posted on Facebook.
But police strongly refute the allegations, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution an internal investigation found no violations of department policy.
The video, posted by a Covington man who observed the arrest from his car, captures just a few seconds of the altercation between police and Breonna Bell, who is seen face down on the pavement, her pants pulled down to her ankles. She was left exposed for several minutes, said witness Jazmin Stephens, a friend of Bell’s. Police countered that the entire incident lasted four minutes and 25 seconds.
“Covington police have a reputation,” said Stephens, 28. “To see it happen to someone you know, when you actually witness it first hand, you’re like, ‘wow.’
What’s not seen in the video is just as disturbing, Stephens said. Bell was holding her 8-month-old son in her arms as police struggled to pull her out of the front seat of Stephens’ car.
The baby fell. “He hit the concrete pretty hard,” Stephens said. “(Bell) was screaming: ‘You made me drop my baby!’ “
Police later released body camera footage of the incident that showed the moment the child fell. The officer grabbed at Bell’s right arm while she held the boy with the crook of her left arm against her left hip, facing outward. She clutched a cellphone and a baby bottle in her left hand.
In the video, obtained by Channel 2 Action News, the officer continued grabbing at Bell’s right arm while she tried to enter the car, and she lost her grip on the child. He fell a short distance from her seated position to the asphalt below. Bell quickly scooped him up.
Stephens is heard in the video telling Bell at that point to hand over the child and get out of the car.
“No, I'm not fixing to go to jail, (expletive),” Bell replied. “I got a warrant.”
In its report of the incident, Covington police said the child landed on his bottom and did not appear injured.
Asked why an officer was tussling with a mother holding her baby, Covington police Capt. Ken Malcom said, “He was affecting a lawful arrest.”
Bell’s 2-year-old, and Stephens’ children, watched the incident unfold.
“The kids were all crying,” Stephens said. “My son ran from the car, he was so scared.”
Malcom said Bell was asked “more than a dozen times” to comply with officer commands. He said the officers encouraged her to hand her kids over to a relative so she could shield them from the arrest. Bell refused.
Police blamed the baby’s mother for putting him in harm’s way.
“As I attempted to remove (Bell) from the car I made sure not to grab the arm holding the baby,” one of the five responding officers wrote in the report. “As she sat down in the car the baby fell from her arm due to her actions, resisting my verbal commands while attempting to get away from me.”
It was Bell who contacted police, seeking their help in extracting keys from inside her locked vehicle. Responding to Bell’s call from the Nelson Heights community, one of the officers ran a check on the vehicle’s registration and discovered she had an outstanding arrest warrant for a probation violation.
“While confirming this information, Ms. Bell appeared to become nervous and quickly adjusted her grip on the child,” the report states.
When confronted with the warrant, police said Bell told them, “I can’t do that,” and headed to Stephens’ parked car.
Longtime Covington resident Denise Williams said Bell’s arrest underscores longstanding tensions between the black community and the city’s police department. The five officers who responded to the scene are white; Bell is African-American.
“Something needs to be done,” said Williams, a board member with the New Order National Human Rights Organization, which is sponsoring a rally Tuesday morning outside the Covington Police Department. “We desperately need a citizen review board.”
Gerald Rose, who leads the New Order group, said he plans to meet with a representative of the department following Tuesday’s rally.
“I know officers have a job to do but at the same time they clearly went overboard here,” said Rose, adding the officers involved should be disciplined.
Bell remains in custody at the Newton County Jail, charged with obstructing an officer.
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