In 2011, cellphone video that was uploaded to YouTube captured two transit police officers in Washington, D.C., forcefully throwing a homeless man in a motorized wheelchair onto a concrete sidewalk outside a subway station. Dwight Harris ended up bleeding on the ground with several cuts to his head.
Following the incident, Harris was arrested for drinking in public and assaulting a police officer.
What did Harris do? According to the official police affidavit, Harris punched the officers, and the “flailing of his arms” caused him to fall out of his wheelchair. The cellphone video of the incident didn’t capture Harris throwing any punches – and it doesn’t show Harris, who suffers from spinal problems, voluntarily jumping out of his chair.
A crowd of onlookers gathered and asked the officers to stop. One of them, Lawrence Miller, repeatedly questioned what they were doing to Harris. The officers then arrested Miller on the charge of assaulting a police officer.
Prosecutors later dropped the criminal charges against both men, who eventually filed lawsuits against the transit agency and settled out of court.
Harris said he’s no longer homeless. He’s found stable housing, in part because of the settlement agreement from the lawsuit. As for the incident, he said: “The video speaks for itself; there’s not too much I can say about it.”
The Justice Department reviewed footage of the incident but decided not to file any charges against the two transit police officers, Dave Burpoe and Fred Price.
Videos of violent confrontations between police and suspects have created a national debate about race, policing and citizens’ rights. People across the country are demanding that law enforcement officers be held accountable for alleged abuses, much of which is disproportionately directed at minority groups.
In Washington, D.C., a heavily criticized and broadly applied law intended to protect police officers has instead, in some cases, ruined the lives of citizens who did nothing more than shout, flail their arms or nurse a bad shoulder.
The “assaulting a police officer” statute defines the offense as including not just physical assault, but also “resisting, opposing, impeding, intimidating or interfering” with law enforcement officers. People can be arrested in violation of the statute for behavior many people would call normal, such as trying to protect a pregnant girlfriend from harm by alerting police to the fact that she is indeed with child, or grabbing the steering wheel while being dragged out of a car by police.
A five-month investigation by WAMU 88.5 News and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, co-produced by Reveal, found that the arrests of Harris and Miller were not isolated incidents. Between 2012 and 2014, more than 2,000 people were arrested for assaulting a police officer in Washington, D.C.
Nine out of 10 arrestees were African American, despite making up roughly half of the city’s population. And nearly two-thirds of those arrested for assaulting an officer weren’t charged with any other crime, raising questions about whether police had legal justification to stop the person in the first place. In addition, prosecutors declined to press charges in more than 40 percent of these arrests.
Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier concedes the law is unfair and creating undue hardship and leads to inappropriate arrests. She supports changing it.
“If you didn’t physically assault someone, to be charged with assault on a police officer wouldn’t feel fair,” Lanier said.
This story was edited by Julia B. Chan and Robert J. Rosenthal and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.