Cops, Courts & Prisons

PETERSBURG PROTESTERS CHARGE POLICE BRUTALITY

Originally published in the Summer 2014 edition of the Virginia Defender. Reproduced here on August 14, 2020 for accessibility and archival purposes. To download a PDF of this issue, see our Full Issues page.

By Whitney Whiting

About 45 people, most of them African-Americans in their 20s, rallied June 16 outside the Petersburg police station just a few days after a video was posted on social media showing what appears to be police brutality against 19-year-old Devin Thomas. The rally was called by the police accountability group Virginia Cop Block.

Thomas, who is African-American, says he was standing on the sidewalk June 10 in front of Petersburg East Apartments, filming police officers with his cell phone, when two officers told him to move away. In the video, Thomas can be seen backing up to the door of one of the housing units, as one officer follows him and asks his age. According to Thomas, when he answered that he was 19, the other officer knocked the phone out of his hand and proceeded to assault him.

At that point all that can be seen in the video is the sky, but the audio recorded what seems to have been an altercation of some kind. Still photos taken directly after the incident show the teenager bloodied on his face. He reportedly suffered a concussion.

Two days later, Thomas filed a complaint about the incident. Petersburg police say they are investigating.

It was hot during the rally, but some people stood for up to three hours holding signs and demanding justice, letting the police know that abusive behavior is unacceptable. They chanted “Cops are not above the law!” One sign read, “Fire thug cops.”

Some in the crowd were openly expressed their views to the police who were present, saying enforcing a trespassing law in a neighborhood is unjust and implying that the officer made sure the victim was legally an adult by asking his age directly before the assault.

Some people held signs with photos of loved ones they said were killed at the hands of the Petersburg Sheriff’s Department, asking people to remember their lost loved ones.

After being handed a megaphone at the rally, Thomas’ sister asked, “Why are they trying to make him seem like a thug? He’s not a thug. He graduated [high school] and just got accepted to college. He’s trying to make his life better for his nephew. Why did you do this to my brother? There’s a reason people record. If he didn’t record, who knows what else you would have done to him.”

Thomas stated this was the first time he had ever tried to film police.

Some protesters called for more church involvement. Bishop S.H. Bey of the Good Samaritan International Church of Praises said, “Some of the police have gotten out of control. They’re issuing assault rifles in our communities. They’re issuing tanks in our communities. They’re issuing drones in our communities. It’s time for us hold them accountable to the community that’s paying for their services.”

To Thomas, he stated it would be a “gross miscarriage of justice” if no one from the police department made an appearance to address this matter. He said the police chief ought to come out and apologize.

It was rumored that Police Chief Dixon would speak to the crowd, but this never materialized.

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