The violent arrest of a young black man in uptown Athens around midnight Saturday has sparked a brushfire around town and campus that was still alight as this edition went to press Wednesday afternoon.
I have a number of observations about the incident based on my own 33 years of reporting and editing in Athens, my long acquaintance with the involved city officials, my familiarity with local police, and my own four years as an Ohio University student in the mid-’70s when isolated police vs. student confrontations sometimes escalated into full-blown riots.
But first some background.
Charges of police racism and brutality erupted within minutes of an OU student sharing a 30-second video Sunday morning on Twitter. The night-time clip shows a young African-American man – later identified as University of Cincinnati student Ty Bealer, 21 – being shoved into the ground, man-handled and arrested by three white Athens Police officers on North Court Street near the J-Bar. A crowd of uptown patrons can be seen and heard in the foreground, with some hollering and gesturing at the police officers.
Bealer pleaded not guilty Monday in Athens County Municipal Court to second-degree misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and obstructing official business.
After the first video and others turned viral Sunday, several Ohio University student groups, including the campus chapter of the NAACP, condemned the police officers for their violent treatment of Bealer, who some witnesses said didn’t offer any resistance.
Conflicting stories emerged about what precipitated the police response, and the only agreement seemed to be that police were called after one or more incidents at the nearby J-Bar, involving altercation(s) between a black man identified as Bealer and bouncers or staff at the bar.
As for what happened after police officers arrived, OU student Ajiyah Brooks, who shared the initial video of the arrest, told Athens NEWS Associate Editor Conor Morris that she saw the police officers running down the street toward Bealer. He reportedly asked them, “what did I do?” Brooks recounted, then one of the officers allegedly “pulled him and slammed him on (a nearby) car.”
“The male was punched and as well his face (was) slammed into the ground,” Brooks told The NEWS.
Midday on Monday, Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle, flanked by Mayor Steve Patterson and city Service-Safety Director Andy Stone, responded to the allegations of police misconduct in Bealer’s arrest. Pyle said the incident is under internal review, standard procedure after any incident in which APD officers exercise force.
However, Pyle then stated that from what he can tell so far, officers’ use of force was “justified” and “restrained” considering the situation they were facing.
The police chief said officers arriving at the scene had been alerted that the suspect may have “assaulted other patrons of the bar,” and that when they arrived and tried to arrest him, Bealer attempted to “resist officers” and “run away.” That’s when the officers felt compelled to react more forcefully, the police chief said.
As for charges of racism, Chief Pyle said he doesn’t see it in the way that his officers handled Bealer’s arrest.
Mayor Patterson said he and Andy Stone decided to attend Monday’s press conference to support the police chief amid “misinformation” swirling around the incident.
There’s more to the story, of course, and as Pyle stated, other videos that are being examined should shed more light on the situation.
For what they’re worth, these are my observations about this situation:
Charges of racism
I’m an older white guy, so please consider the source, but the evidence and eyewitness accounts I’ve seen and heard about don’t support charges of racism in this incident. I’m not saying that the police officers’ forceful actions weren’t racially motivated (neither you nor I know what they were thinking). But other than the happenstance of the officers’ race and Bealer’s race, nothing else I’ve seen or heard backs up the racism charge.
This is reinforced by my own knowledge of the Athens Police Department’s record on racism, which doesn’t contain any significant incidents or allegations in recent years (or really in my own admittedly faulty memory, which here in Athens goes back to the early ’70s). But I don’t think it’s fair to try to shoehorn what happened on North Court Street late Saturday night into a Ferguson, Missouri, type situation or other recent controversies involving communities with long histories of tension between white police officers and black residents. That’s simply not the case here in Athens, where the overwhelming tension has always been between police and students, the vast majority of them white.
It’s possible that I – again, an older white dude – just don’t know about actual situations where local police have behaved in a racist manner, though one would think the local press would have been alerted to such incidents.
Over the years I’ve seen numerous situations where law enforcement officers in Athens aggressively took down an arrestee. In almost every case, the person being forcefully subdued by multiple cops was a white guy. We have photos if you don’t believe me.
Finally, even if some police officers are racist (again, I don’t know which ones or how many), it’s not fair to paint all of them with the same brush. Most of the APD officers I’ve come in contact with over the years are dedicated professionals charged with doing a difficult job in a city with unique law-enforcement challenges.
Condemning them as oppressive enemies of the people, as a socialist City Council candidate has been doing (see this letter), is just silly, and I’m guessing that approach will doom any chance she and others espousing that view have of winning. (Of course, stating that point of view will automatically expose me as an oppressive racist, too. Just wait.)
Police use of force
Often when I see video or photographs, or personally witness, a situation where several police officers are taking down one man (or woman), I think, man, why are they using a sledge-hammer to pound a thumb-tack?
Watching the video of the incident Saturday night on Court Street, I got the same feeling. It seemed like the three officers were going above and beyond the call of duty while forcing Bealer into submission. Not knowing everything (including how much the young man was resisting before and during the arrest, or what if any violent actions the officers took before the video started), I can’t say for sure whether that level of force was warranted. Yet it’s certainly worth looking into.
My advice to Athens Police Chief Pyle: Don’t confirm an investigation into an alleged incident of your officers using excessive force, then a few seconds later state that from what you can tell so far, the officers’ actions were “justified” and “restrained.” Handicapping the results of a departmental probe – which by its internal nature is biased in favor of fellow police officers – will only raise doubts about the findings when they absolve the officers of wrongdoing. I didn’t use the word “if” for good reason.
Much better would be an independent review of allegations of police misconduct – in this case excessive use of force and racism – kicking in after a serious incident such as what happened late Saturday night.
You’re not helping
As stated before, the initial video of Bealer’s arrest shows college-aged bystanders in the crowd screaming at the police officers during the arrest (“Is this what you gotta do?” repeatedly chanted by one man, “He better stay alive” from a woman, and one man moving very close to the officers grappling with Bealer on the ground.)
I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that police officers surrounded by an angry crowd will be less likely to control their own responses than in a less fraught situation. It’s also safe to say that screaming at police officers will not persuade them to lighten up. While it may make you feel better, that behavior certainly won’t help things for Mr. Bealer (or whomever).
Believe me, this is how riots get started. I witnessed it myself a couple times while attending OU in the early to mid-’70s. Uptown bar-goers would see police officers exercising what appeared to be excessive force against a tipsy student, who perhaps was carrying an open container or behaving disorderly; other students nearby would crowd around screaming and yelling at the officers; police backup would arrive; the crowd would snowball; and voila, you had an instant uptown Athens riot, with the requisite mass arrests and injuries.
If police backup had arrived during the arrest late Saturday night, I suspect that something similar might have happened on North Court Street. At the very least, anybody crowding the officers would have been arrested.