A Georgia man has sued the Valdosta, Georgia police department for $700,000 following a February incident where he was wrongfully detained and aggressively handled. He’s seeking damages for unnecessary and excessive use of force.
According to the Valdosta Daily Times, the federal suit filed by Antonio Arnelo Smith last Friday accuses Valdosta police officers of injuring him during an encounter that was a result of mistaken identity. During the incident, Smith was body-slammed to the ground and cuffed because authorities believed he was a suspect in a panhandling case. His attorneys argue that officers were in violation of Smith’s civil rights.
Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson, members of the Valdosta City Council, Valdosta Police Chief Leslie Manahan, three Valdosta patrolmen and one police sergeant are all named as defendants in the lawsuit that attorneys are demanding be decided upon by a jury trial.
Bodycam video captured of the encounter begins with Smith calmly speaking with a Black patrolman who is questioning him about his activity in the area. The officer claims that he was called to the scene after somebody reported suspicious activity. Smith told the officer that he was not involved in suspicious activity. Instead, he was visiting the Western Union inside of the nearby Walgreens and was waiting for his sister in Florida to wire transfer him money.
As Smith is offering up his ID and telling the officer his reason for being there, Valdosta Police Sgt. Billy Wheeler walks right up to Smith, restrains him in a “bear hug” and within seconds of telling him to put his hand behind his back, slams him to the ground. A shocked, and obviously hurt Smith, begins to cry out that the sergeant broke his wrist.
Moments later it becomes obvious that the officers’ attack on Smith was unwarranted as confusion arises around why he was being detained. Sgt. Wheeler, who approached the scene without asking any questions, admits that he thought Smith was the suspect who had a warrant out for his arrest. The Black patrolman on the scene tells him that Smith provided ID and confirmed he was not that man.
“It’s two different people,” the patrolman offers up. “That’s why I was trying to figure out if I had missed something when you told him to put his hands behind his back.”
Smith’s lawsuit states that he sustained “distal radial and ulnar fractures” from the encounter with Wheeler and walked away in agonizing pain.
On Monday, the City of Valdosta put out a statement saying, “The City of Valdosta and the Valdosta Police Department takes any report of any injury to a citizen seriously. Although there was no complaint filed with VPD, once the shift supervisor was notified, it prompted the review process of the incident by the officer’s supervisor, patrol bureau commander, Internal Affairs Division and chief of police.”