A white Georgia police officer accused of excessive force in a federal civil rights lawsuit claims he did nothing wrong during the February arrest of an innocent Black man whose wrist was broken after being slammed to the ground.
In a legal filing this week, attorneys for Valdosta police Lt. Billy Wheeler admit he misidentified Antonio Arnelo Smith as a wanted felon, but said excessive force was justified because the man resisted arrest, according to The Associated Press.
The violent take-down on February 8 prompted the 46-year-old Smith to retain his own lawyer, Nathaniel Haugabrook, who filed suit in June against the Valdosta Police Department, saying officers violated his client’s civil rights.
» PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Black man sues Valdosta Police Dept., claiming excessive force during arrest
To make matters worse, 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.
Video of the encounter showed Smith handing his driver’s license to a Black officer and talking cooperatively when Wheeler walks up behind him, wraps him in a bear hug and slams him face-first to the ground.
“Oh my God, you broke my wrist!” Smith screams as two more white officers arrive and handcuff him on the ground. When an officer tells Smith he’s being arrested on an outstanding warrant, he’s immediately corrected by the first officer: They’ve got the wrong man.
At that point the officers simply let Smith go after he declined to wait for an ambulance.
Wheeler’s actions “were objectively reasonable” and did not deprive Smith of any constitutional rights, attorneys James Thagard and Matthew Lawrence said in the court filing Tuesday.
They also noted, as did lawyers for Valdosta’s mayor and police chief in a separate legal filing, that no disciplinary action was taken against Wheeler. In fact, his attorneys said, the police department promoted Wheeler from sergeant to lieutenant at some point after Smith’s injury.
Wheeler’s attorneys said in their court filing that Wheeler acted “believing (Smith) was the person with the outstanding warrants for his arrest.” They also said the takedown was justified because Smith was resisting.
When Wheeler grabbed Smith’s wrist he “felt (Smith) tense up and begin to pull away from Wheeler,” the attorneys wrote, and Wheeler then “encircled (Smith) with his arms and gave (Smith) room to put his hands behind his back as he was being instructed to do.”
They said Wheeler took Smith to the ground because he “continued to press his arms outward against Wheeler’s.”
Smith’s civil rights claim also names Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson, members of the Valdosta City Council, Valdosta Police Chief Leslie Manahan, three Valdosta patrolmen and one police sergeant, according to the Valdosta Daily Times.
Smith is asking for compensation and punitive damages in the amount of $700,000, according to the Times. The suit also demands a jury trial.
What police say happened
The Valdosta Police Department issued a statement about the matter on Facebook. On the date of Smith’s arrest, February 8, police said they received a call from a Walgreens in the 2800 block of North Ashley Street.
Someone there reported a Black man outside the store harassing customers for money and talking loudly, but there was no report that an actual crime happened.
Two officers with the Valdosta Police Department arrived to find the suspect gone, so they split up to find him.
A customer stopped one of the officers to provide a description, while the other officer searched the back of the building and encountered Smith.
At the same time, the officer speaking to the customer said he was able to quickly determine the suspect’s identity.
The officer radioed dispatch, saying the suspect had several active felony arrest warrants.
Other police units hearing the communication about a wanted felon responded to the scene. One of the arriving officers saw Smith being questioned in the back of the store and immediately ordered him to put his hands behind his back, according to the statement.
The man resisted, according to the statement. The officer then took the man to the ground using a “physical control technique.”
Once subdued, Smith was placed in handcuffs, according to the statement.
Officers then noticed the take-down caused the man’s wrist to be injured, and said they removed the handcuffs and called for an ambulance, according to the statement.
That’s when the arresting officer learned Smith was not the man wanted for felonies. Smith declined treatment for his injuries and he was allowed to leave the Walgreens. The officer notified his supervisor about the incident.
“The City of Valdosta and the Valdosta Police Department takes any report of any injury to a citizen seriously,” the statement concluded. “Although there was no complaint filed with VPD, once the shift supervisor was notified, it prompted the review process of the incident by the officer’s supervisor, patrol bureau commander, Internal Affairs Division and chief of police.”
Specifics of the lawsuit
The suit was filed on grounds of “conspiracy to create a false report, excessive force, false detention, false arrest and assault and battery,” the Times reported.
Smith’s lawyer said the arresting sergeant put Smith in a bear hug and then falsified his report by saying he informed Smith he was under arrest before slamming him to the ground.
“That’s not the case,” Haugabrook told the Times, adding there was no probable cause to arrest Smith.
The lawsuit said Smith suffered “distal radial and ulnar fractures” that required him to wear a sling and take pain medication. He was also referred to an orthopedic surgeon, the Times reported.
Haugabrook said Smith had the right “to be free from an unlawful arrest, unlawful detention and all of the other rights that goes along with us being citizens.”
Information provided by The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.