Crosswalk case: Taxpayer payout ends cops' black eye
The injured plaintiff had already agreed to eschew hot-button terms like "Code of Blue" or "Code of Silence" when the lawsuit alleging a police conspiracy went before a jury. But the suit filed by the Charlottesville man struck in a crosswalk by a police cruiser won't reach trial. It has ended not with a bang like the one that began it four years ago but with a secret settlement. Along the way, it pried open several secrets, none of which shed favorable light on the Albemarle or Charlottesville Police departments.
"I've been accused of being a liar; I've been accused of being corrupt," says Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo, whose men made the controversial decision to charge not the Albemarle officer who drove into a citizen in broad daylight– but instead to charge the citizen, a man toppled from his wheelchair as he quietly headed home after buying groceries.
As the dashcam video showed, the overhead traffic light was green when Gerry Mitchell piloted his motorized chair through the crosswalk across West Main Street on the morning of November 5, 2007. As the defendants later pointed out, Mitchell may have ignored a red hand symbol at the Fourth Street intersection.
Yet the fact remained that Charlottesville authorities– who have issued scads of reckless driving warrants to drivers who injure someone, and who have the right to press charges for texting while driving and for violating pedestrian rights– chose instead to pile the weight of government on an injured man who crossed against a crosswalk light, lending credence to the concept that the best defense is a good offense.
"This is outright abuse of power for the purpose of protecting one of their own and for intimidating a witness and causing emotional distress," according to the lawsuit, which sought $850,000 and ended up cracking the case by showing how the incident might have happened: the Albemarle officer had been furiously texting his girlfriend that morning– 54 times according to one lawyer's account. Getting the information out of the officer, Gregory C. Davis, proved arduous. Although the dashcam revealed that he'd been listening to "My Humps" by the Black-Eyed Peas, he neglected to tell the investigator about the potentially distracting spat with his lady friend. Later, in his first interrogatory, Davis admitted that he'd been disciplined for excessive use of a cell phone but omitted to mention what his still-later deposition would reveal: that the disciplinary action came in response to that very morning's texting.
Albemarle Police never would let the public learn what punishment– if any– Davis received for his on-the-clock text-a-thon. But the suit did reveal that this wasn't Davis' first brush with Internal Affairs.
His first occurred when he allegedly taunted the husband of that same woman, with whom he was having a relationship. With revelations of sexual taunting and frenzied texting looming, the defense became so worried about a "tabloid" atmosphere poisoning the jury that in late September, Davis agreed to admit negligence rather than see his texts show up in open court.
By that point, fellow defendant and Charlottesville Police Officer Steve Grissom– the one who supposedly investigated the incident– had already told the court that if only he'd known about all the texting, he'd have probably issued the ticket to Davis instead of Mitchell. (In a filing, Davis calls this an "improper opinion.")
If a rift eventually erupted between the two men in blue, it was not obvious in the UVA hospital room where Mitchell was receiving treatment. There, several hours after the incident, the duo arrived while Mitchell was still in bed and still wearing a hospital gown, to issue him a summons.
"Get the hell out of here," Mitchell said, according to the official police report, when he realized the purpose of the unusual dual-Department visit.
In one of his filings, Grissom– noting that he'd didn't previously know either Mitchell or Davis– downplays any notion of conspiracy: "The essence of the case against Officer Grissom is that Mr. Mitchell received a traffic summons, and he was not happy about it."
Yet Mitchell was far from the only one unhappy with law enforcement's behavior. Long before citizens rallied to Mitchell's support, the case became a Hook cover story because the eyewitness seen rushing to Mitchell's aid in the dashcam video described what he considered official unwillingness to take his statement even though he allegedly lingered at the scene. The witness later suggested that officers interviewed him grudgingly only after media attention and then retaliated by reviving an old bounced-check charge.
"You can question the decision until the cows come home," says Chief Longo, wishing to point out that some press accounts, including those in the Hook, oversimplified his official report to City Council. For the record, Longo didn't claim that there were no witnesses, just that none presented themselves to Officer Grissom.
"It's a paramilitary organization, and I respect the chain of command," says Longo, who adds that in the future he'd like to be immediately informed of any incident involving a police officer.
In this case, taxpayers are paying for the settlement, but they'll never know how much they paid. Although the officer was a County employee, the Board of Supervisors did not get the opportunity to vote on the decision because the settlement comes from a self-insurance pool representing about 250 Virginia municipalities. Albemarle joined that group, known as VACoRP, in the 2007 fiscal year with an annual premium starting at $336,000.
Mitchell is a Yale-educated artist who is one of America's longest surviving AIDS patients. He has recently been diagnosed with inoperable kidney cancer, and a close friend says the settlement came not a moment too soon.
"We didn't expect him to be here this fall," says friend Marjorie Sunflower Sargent. "They found every reason to delay. I think they were just waiting for him to die."
Davis's lawyer declined to comment. As for Davis, who joined the Albemarle force in 2003, he's still on the job, but when a reporter called his cellphone twice after the settlement was revealed, the line went dead after the reporter introduced himself.
"He possesses high integrity and characteristics," Albemarle Police Chief Steve Sellers says of Davis. "I don't tolerate integrity violations."
Sellers says that what some might perceive as Davis' lack of candor in the traffic investigation is actually consistent with the right any citizen enjoys to remain silent, and he notes that Davis is a valued underwater search team member, a crisis intervention expert, and he volunteers for the Special Olympics.
Agreeing that this case should have been handled better, Sellers says that when he became chief at the start of this year he instituted a wave of reforms including putting Internal Affairs investigations directly under his purview, redrawing the Department's mission statement to emphasize diversity and individual rights, and demanding a debriefing on any "major incident in the community."
Mitchell's attorney declined to comment on the settlement amount, and the terminally ill artist did not return a reporter's calls but conveyed through his friend Sargent that he's now just trying to stay alive.
"I held on as long as I could," he says via Sargent. "Thank you all."
Sargent notes that in July she helped kick off a retrospective exhibition– a "last hurrah"– of Mitchell's earliest paintings at the Jeweler's Eye, a shop on the Downtown Mall, after learning of his inoperable cancer. Mitchell, she says, makes a habit of donating his shows' proceeds to those less fortunate including American Indians, AIDS sufferers, and tsunami survivors.
"He himself is in terrible shape, and yet he's always compassionate," says Sargent. "I wish the police had been as compassionate to him."