By Andrew Jenner and Ryan Alessi
This story has been updated after police body camera footage was released on Friday by the Harrisonburg Police Department.
Hours before a rally organized to seek answers about police officers’ conduct while arresting two black women over the weekend, leaders of the local NAACP chapter withdrew from the event. Their decision came after Police Chief Eric English showed two of the organization’s leaders the police body camera footage of the entire incident over the weekend — including events leading up to and following the cell phone video taken by partygoers and circulated on social media.
Monica Robinson, president of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham NAACP, said she and John Butler Jr., the vice president, watched 45 minutes of the body camera footage that began when officers got the first call to investigate a noise complaint at North 38.
The situation ultimately escalated, resulting in the arrest of Melissa Duncan on two charges of assaulting an officer and her wife, Nina Bradley, on charges of resisting arrest. Duncan is being held without bond.
Robinson said watching the full video gave her “a more objective view” of what happened and how several officers ended up following Bradley into the apartment.
“Where they felt an excessive force was used, from watching the video from start to finish, force wasn’t used until it was necessary,” Robinson told The Citizen.
Robinson said the additional information persuaded her that while a wider conversation about community-police relations is needed in Harrisonburg, leading a rally downtown about this specific case wasn’t the best way to facilitate that.
“I’m not trying to minimize the amount of trauma that they felt,” she said of Bradley and others at the party who met with the NAACP and other community members Wednesday night. “They told their story truthfully from their perspective. But I have a different perspective.”
Earlier Thursday afternoon, the Harrisonburg-Rockingham NAACP issued a statement thanking Chief English for his responsiveness to its concerns.
“There have been many responses to the community meeting held and rally at court square,” the statement continues. “This indicates that there are concerns that need to be addressed … We just can not justify a negative response toward HPD based on the facts we saw in the video.”
Another excerpt from the statement (read it in full here):
The video revealed a number of things
–When in the midst of an incident it is very difficult to view things through an objective lens
–An outsider can view the same video, but take all the details into consideration prior to coming to a conclusion
–police/citizen interactions need some work
–historically speaking those of color in the area have had difficulties with HPD
–In this particular instance I could NOT find wrongdoing with the officers actions
–those individuals inside the party were only privy to a portion of the incident, and their fears were justified
–many who viewed the video feel the level of aggression used by HPD officers was excessive
Even though the NAACP withdrew from the rally, the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Democratic Socialists of America, which helped organize it, carried on.
About 50 people crowded in and around the gazebo on Court Square in Thursday afternoon’s rain to express their concerns about the police handling of the Dec. 16 party, before marching up Main Street to WHSV-TV to continue raising awareness.
Steele Dunn, co-chair of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Democratic Socialists, said NAACP leaders informed him before the rally that they wouldn’t participate.
“But we are behind the victims 100 percent. We don’t think the arrests were justified. We think they were racially motivated,” Dunn said.
Dunn said he hadn’t seen the police body cam footage at the time of the rally.
“I think regardless of what happened in the footage, it is clear that in similar situations with white students, police don’t act this way,” he said. “There will never be a noise complaint that ends with tasing and assault and jail with no bond for a white JMU student. It’s clearly racially motivated.”
In addition to the rally, organizers circulated a petition calling for authorities to drop charges facing Bradley and Duncan––or at the very least, encourage restorative justice in their cases.
On Friday morning, the Harrisonburg-Rockingham DSA posted a statement to its Facebook page calling for Duncan’s immediate release and reiterating its position that the police response was unjustified.
In an interview on Thursday afternoon, English said again that cellphone video taken at the party doesn’t tell the whole story of the incident.
“The issue that we have right now is you have one side of the story,” English said. “One thing that I don’t want is for it to look like my officers did something improper, and that was not the case.”
English said the police body camera footage, released on Friday afternoon (links here and here) shows that the two women who were arrested were responsible for escalating the situation, and the portrayal of events that night in The Citizen’s prior coverage was incomplete.
“That’s unfortunate because we have information out there that strains the relationship I’m trying to build with the community,” English said.
“I would like to have conversations with [people] before things occur so we don’t have to … go through all these things,” he continued. “I’m not saying we will always get it right in Harrisonburg, but what I will tell you is if we don’t get it right, I won’t sit and cower behind my desk and make excuses.”
Along with the videos, English released a statement on Facebook, which reads in part:
To ensure that people have a clear picture of what occurred I am making the body worn camera footage available. This is also not the norm, as release of video is not going to be a standard procedure. Due to the need for clarification in this incident I am making this particular video available.
The NAACP, meanwhile, will continue to follow Bradley and Duncan’s cases.
Robinson, the NAACP president, said she has asked Chief English to divert Duncan and Bradley through the restorative justice program. Specifically, she said she hopes Duncan can avoid having felony assault of a police officer on her record.
She said she also would encourage Bradley to proceed with filing a complaint with the Harrisonburg Police Department if she feels she was mistreated and said she mentioned that to English.
“He’s very open to meeting with the girls and would be open to having a discussion about what occurred,” Robinson said.
As for a wider conversation, Robinson said the NAACP is considering holding educational sessions, such as a know-your-rights forum, for the community and also facilitating “a wider discussion” between the community and police, especially to allow people who feel like they’ve been mistreated in the past to voice their concerns.
“The number of people who have come forward with their own stories, it’s become obvious a conversation needs to occur. There’s a lot of stuff brewing,” Robinson said. “This case seems to be what has sparked it.”