When Terry Henderson arrived at the Brent Place Apartments on a sunny June day five years ago, he had no idea he was about to become the latest example of a black man being harassed and manhandled by a white police officer. Henderson, an inspector for the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, was on his way to inspect two units that day at Brent Place, a government-subsidized apartment complex on the West End. When he arrived at the side door, his entry was blocked by a white police officer who told Henderson to use the front door instead.
“I have a key fob,” said Henderson, flashing the hardware he used to do inspections. “You aren’t going to treat me like you treat everyone else at this building.”
Security camera footage shows Henderson turned away and started walking to the front door of the building. But he didn’t get very far. The white officer got in his face and told him he was under arrest for trespassing. The officer ordered Henderson to put his hands behind his back and threatened to pepper spray him if he didn’t comply. Henderson thought this was preposterous, but he put his ARHA clipboard on a ledge and allowed the white man to cuff him. But when the officer demanded he get on the ground, Henderson did not respond fast enough. So the officer pushed him to the ground with such force that a ring on one of his fingers had to be sawed off his finger.
“To this day I still have problems with my shoulder,” said Henderson. “I used to have a great rapport with the police. Now I look at them totally differently.”
No charges were ever filed against Henderson. But Henderson filed charges against Officer John Jones in federal court, accusing him of stopping him without reasonable suspicion, seizing him in violation of the Fourth Amendment and using excessive force. The lawsuit was settled out of court, although Henderson says that’s not what he wanted.
“I wasn’t looking for money. The only thing I wanted was an apology,” he said. “I never got an apology.”
DOCUMENTS OUTLINING use of force by the Alexandria Police Department show Henderson is not alone. Force is used against black males more than any other group, according to numbers compiled by the police department and acquired through a public-records request. The document outlines everything from shooting a gun at a suspect or deploying a Taser to hitting someone with a baton or tackling them to the ground. In the most recent report, which covers 2019, 54 percent of the instances of use of force was against African Americans. That’s significantly higher than the black population in Alexandria, which is 23 percent.
“Generally speaking, it’s because somebody is not complying,” said Shahram Fard, the deputy chief of police who compiled the use-of-force report for the department. “If I make an arrest, the only reason I’m using force is you’re not complying with my commands.”
Fard said it’s difficult to come to a conclusion about the disproportionate use of force in 2019 without knowing more about the individual circumstances in the 45 incidents where force was used by 37 officers against 28 people. For example, he says, he’d like to know things like what time of the day did the incident happen and what was the age of the suspect? Did the suspect suffer from mental illness? Was the suspect under the influence? What type of force was used? All of these questions are likely to be answered in the incident reports, but a spokesman for the department says those will not be released to the public.
“We do not provide incident reports,” said Courtney Ballantine, responding to an email requesting incident reports detailing each use of force. “A FOIA request will also be redacted as there is sensitive information in the reports.”
An ongoing series detailing the lack of open government in Virginia.
SENSITIVE INFORMATION has been concealed from public view for many years at the Alexandria Police Department, which has a long history of withholding information that's widely available in other states. When former Police Chief Earl Cook was appointed to the job in August 2009, he promised to review the policy of shielding public access to documents that are widely available in other states. He later changed his mind and announced he would not be conducting a review after all, adding that the department would continue withholding all incident reports, regardless of what the case is about, regardless of whether the case is open or closed.
"I don’t think we have to justify it," said Cook in a March 2010 interview. "A lot of things can be said about transparency, that doesn’t make it effective.”
Alexandria police could release incident reports if they wanted. But the Virginia Freedom of Information Act gives police agencies broad discretion to withhold documents and information. Police agencies across Virginia have chosen to use that discretion to withhold incident reports in all cases rather than consider the merits of releasing information about individual cases. That creates an information blackout here in Alexandria, where police officials say all of the uses of force in 2019 were warranted but refuse to release documents backing that up.
“They say ’nothing to see here’ and ‘everything’s fine,’ but we don’t know the names and we don’t know the officers,” said Chris Harris, president of the Alexandria NAACP. “We need a citizen review board and a better form of data transparency.”
“You shouldn’t be sending the police when somebody has a mental health crisis. You shouldn’t be asking the police to address homelessness by arresting people for vagrancy or trespass. You shouldn’t be addressing drug addiction by trying to criminalize your way out of it.”
— Claire Gastanaga, executive director, ACLU of Virginia
IN THE LAST 20 YEARS, the population of Alexandria has increased 13 percent. But the budget of the Alexandria Police Department has more than doubled, a spending trend that’s happened at police agencies across the country. That’s led many to question the allocation of public resources.
The killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota last month, documented on video and shared on social media, has prompted a new discussion about resources devoted to law enforcement that could be used for things like social services or youth initiatives.
“You shouldn’t be sending the police when somebody has a mental health crisis,” said Claire Gastanaga, executive director at the ACLU of Virginia. "You shouldn’t be asking the police to address homelessness by arresting people for vagrancy or trespass. You shouldn’t be addressing drug addiction by trying to criminalize your way out of it. You should be investing in education so people have options other than criminal activity as a way to support themselves.”
Recent days have seen a wave of demonstrations across the country protesting police brutality and systemic racism. Here in Alexandria, that’s raising new questions about how police use force against minorities and the kind of information the Alexandria Police Department is willing to share about those incidents. One potential solution is increased training, but that also has its limitations. The federal lawsuit against the white Alexandria police officer from the 2015 incident at Brent Place Apartments pointed out that the white officer already had training in ignoring rude comments from people who otherwise complied with instructions. And yet the incident happened anyway.
“Several hours of sensitivity training do not overcome a lifetime of experience,” said Victor Glasberg, the lawyer who represented the ARHA inspector in federal court. “We are not yet at a point of mutual and cultural ease and respect.”