Cop pulled teens over for broken license plate light, then proceeds to ‘beat, pepper spray and taser” a boy in the car who clearly identified himself as a minor. Then cop walked away thinking he had deleted/destroyed the evidence – but he hadn’t…

By Kathy Hieatt
The Virginian-Pilot


Police Chief Jim Cervera said Friday that the cellphone video showing an officer pepper spraying and then stunning a teenager multiple times during a traffic stop is “not good.”

He hopes to wrap up an internal investigation into the incident next week, he said.

“We are heavily investigating this video and all of the circumstances,” Cervera said after a meeting at the Convention Center. “I am not overly comfortable with what I saw on that video, I can tell you that. It’s not good.”

A Facebook user named Courtney Gee posted footage online of a Jan. 10 traffic stop during which an officer sprays a Virginia Beach 17-year-old in the eyes and then stuns him at least twice. She uploaded the video on Jan. 27, and it has been viewed more than a million times.

The clip grabbed the attention of police watchdog groups, which criticized it online.

When the Police Department became aware of the four-minute video, it placed an officer on administrative duty and initiated an internal investigation, it announced in a news release Thursday.

The driver, 18-year-old Courtney Griffith, also told TV reporters that an officer tried to delete the video from her phone, but she recovered it from her “recently deleted” file.

That accusation is more alarming than the violence, said defense attorney Gary C. Byler, who is representing the boy’s family.

Cervera said that’s a “big problem,” if it occurred.

The traffic stop took place about 9 p.m. in the 1900 block of Darnell Drive, which is off Diamond Springs Road. It started because Griffith’s license plate light was out, Griffith told WTKR.

Police then said they smelled marijuana and ordered Griffith and the younger teen out of the car, according to the video.

“Step out of the vehicle,” an officer is heard saying.

“I’m going to get out, I’m going to get out,” the boy eventually replies.

It then appears as if someone tries to grab him from the vehicle, and he resists.

An officer yells, “Get out!” and then pepper sprays him before stunning him at least twice with a Taser.

Officers retrieved 5.5 ounces of marijuana from the car, along with a “huge” scale, according to an online police report.

They charged Griffith with misdemeanor possession of marijuana, which a judge dismissed on April 1.

Griffith did not respond to The Virginian-Pilot’s request for an interview Friday.

A 17-year-old was charged on that date with misdemeanor resisting arrest, felony possession with intent to distribute marijuana and felony assault on a law enforcement officer, said Macie Pridgen, a spokeswoman for the commonwealth’s attorney. She said she could not provide the teen’s name or confirm it was the same one portrayed in the video.

That teen pleaded guilty and is being held in juvenile detention, Pridgen said. She said prosecutors reduced the assault charge to a misdemeanor.

The Pilot typically does not name juveniles accused of crimes. Byler declined to comment on the teen’s status.

Police have not named the driver, the teen or the officer placed on administrative duty.

Officer Christopher Mackie issued Griffith the summons, according to the document filed in General District Court. He has worked for the department since 2012 and in 2013 won an internal life-saving medal, according to the Police Department’s annual report and a Pilot database of city employees.

The investigating officer for the case was Ewell Pittman, according to the online police report. Pittman is a nine-year veteran of the department and, as of January 2014, was a master police officer, according to the database.

Brian Luciano, president of the Virginia Beach Police Benevolent Association, said the officer’s actions in the video appear to be in line with the department’s use-of-force policy. But he said the investigation still must conclude.

“Be patient, and don’t judge it just by what you see,” Luciano said. “There’s always more to the story.”

Police are under additional scrutiny today because of high-profile use-of-force incidents in other parts of the country, Luciano said.

“We would caution the officers to just do the right thing, to do what they’re trained to do and not worry about politics,” he said.

In a traffic stop, the people in a vehicle have a legal obligation to comply with an officer’s orders, Luciano added.

“People think they’re taking a moral stand by standing up to police,” he said. But “there’s a difference between a moral stand and a legal stand.”

The department’s five-page general order on use of force defines it as, “Any physical effort that is used to seize, control, or repel another individual.” It directs officers to take various factors into account before using force, including the person’s level of resistance and whether they pose an immediate threat to police or the community.

“Under no circumstances will the force used be greater than necessary to achieve lawful objectives and to conduct lawful public safety activities,” the policy reads.

The policy includes use of pepper spray or Tasers, which Virginia Beach police began carrying in 2009. They are mounted with cameras.

Byler said he intends to request the footage from the Taser used on his client when he and the teen’s family meet with investigators next week.

“While the family is understandably shaken by the violent nature of the video they are willing to give the internal Virginia Beach Police investigation a chance to be completed,” Byler wrote in a statement. “The family hopes and trusts the Virginia Beach Police Department will use this occurrence to reaffirm their commitment to retain and preserve ALL video evidence in the future.”

Social media allowed the incident to come to light, and citizen videos are valuable tools to maintain civil order, Byler said.

In situations like the one captured on camera Jan. 10, the impetus is on police to take the high ground, he added. Even if obstinate, the teen posed no threat, he said.

“When you deal with teens, particularly teenage boys, you’re going to expect some inappropriate actions,” Byler said. “We hire and train police to defuse the situations.”

 

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