NEWS- Show of force: Couple arrested, allege police brutality


Blair Austin says she has suffered neck and back pain since she was pushed to the ground at this crosswalk during an incident involving a Charlottesville police officer on September 28.

Friday night, September 28, should have been a joyful evening for Richard Silva and his fiancee, Blair Austin. Recently reunited after Silva returned home following nearly three years in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the couple was celebrating Silva's 35th birthday.


It was the first of his birthdays they'd spent together since they met in 2004, and by their account they intended to celebrate quietly on the Downtown Mall. The two headed to Zocalo for dinner with another couple, then stopped by the Blue Light Grill for a nightcap before returning to the Water Street Parking Garage at around 12:45am, where they say they planned to meet up with a friend who'd agreed to be their designated driver.

But as Silva and Austin, 27, soon discovered, even the best laid plans can go awry. Less than an hour later, the birthday boy and his bride-to-be were behind bars following a shocking incident that had onlookers frantically calling 911– even though police were already on the scene.

As the couple, their two friends, and several other people prepared to cross Water Street heading south toward the garage, a Charlottesville police SUV suddenly barreled down the incline on Second Street from the railroad tracks at what witnesses described as a high rate of speed. Silva and Austin were just entering the crosswalk.

"I was like, 'Oh, my God; there's no way he can slow down,'" says Carrie Stuart, who was walking with her boyfriend along Second Street toward the Mall and had just passed the X-Lounge at the time. Stuart, an actress, says she was certain the police vehicle was on a collision course with the people in the crosswalk.

Fortunately, Stuart says, the vehicle, which had started to turn right onto Water Street, "slid to a stop" before the startled pedestrians, who scurried about 20 feet east up Water Street in the seconds before the officer stopped.

"He didn't have any turn signal on," says Austin.

Although the vehicle's lights were flashing during its approach, witnesses say the siren was not on. Silva says he was so frightened and angry that the siren hadn't been on to warn the group of its rapid approach that he raised his hands in the air and shouted something like "Slow your a** down!" or "Slow the f*** down!" He now wishes he'd kept his mouth shut.

Charlottesville Police Officer Mike Flaherty got out and, according to witnesses, pointed at Silva, then began handcuffing him. Silva's fiancee– a slim blond wearing a dress and heels for the special occasion– cried out, "Why are you arresting him?"

Witnesses claim that Flaherty stepped toward Austin and shoved her with both hands, knocking her flat on her back on the asphalt. Even strangers were stunned. 

"She hit so hard she spun on the ground," says Anjani Solonen, one of four Liberty University students who were just ending an evening out in Charlottesville.

By that time, Stuart had reached the scene. Like the Liberty students, she had never met Silva or Austin. She didn't see Flaherty push the woman, but she says, "I heard the sound of her hitting the pavement."

As she watched Silva being handcuffed, Stuart says, she felt compelled to do something. And as Silva was placed in the car, Stuart says she started screaming, "Don't you dare arrest that man– he did nothing wrong!"

If onlookers were upset over Silva's treatment, seeing a uniformed officer knock a woman so violently to the ground created such feelings of outrage that one member of the Liberty University group called 911 to report his behavior. The director of the Emergency Communications Center, Thomas Hanson, acknowledges that the call came in, but says he can't release the tape until police have determined whether it's part of an ongoing investigation.

Despite the crowd's insistence that he release Silva and leave Austin alone, Flaherty directed a newly arrived police back-up officer to also arrest Austin, who by that time had stood up and was once again questioning her fiance's arrest.

"I thought there was going to be a damn riot," says Chris Ryan, one of the two friends who had accompanied the couple to Zocalo that night. "He hit her hard enough that it would have knocked me down."

Nearly a dozen witnesses who voluntarily remained at the scene after Austin and Silva were taken to jail offered their phone numbers to Ryan's girlfriend, while Ryan headed to the Charlottesville Police Station to find Flaherty's supervisor.

Ryan says he drew a diagram and explained the incident in detail to Sergeant Shawn Bayles, the midnight shift supervisor, who supported Flaherty's actions. Ryan wasn't surprised, nor is he judgmental.

"That's what he's supposed to do," says Ryan. But he claims that Bayles made one comment that startled him.

"He said, 'Well, to tell you the truth, we've had a lot of problems with a lot of the young liberals going to college causing problems,'" Ryan says. "I said, 'We're not a bunch of college kids, and as a matter of fact, I'm from Mississippi, and I'm not a damn liberal.'"

Like Silva, Ryan describes himself as a contractor supporting the U.S. military. Bayles did not return the Hook's call for comment, but Charlottesville Police Captain Bryant Bibb says the department is "strictly apolitical."

Ryan's attempt to win their release failed; his friends spent the night behind bars. Silva was charged with public swearing and intoxication, a class-four misdemeanor punishable by a $250 fine; Austin was charged both with public swearing and intoxication and with obstructing justice without force, a class-one misdemeanor punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to 12 months in jail. Both were kept overnight in holding cells at the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail. Trials for both Silva and Austin are set for 10am Thursday, October 11 in Charlottesville General District Court.

Following the arrests, a group of nearly a dozen witnesses gathered at the intersection of Water and Second Streets and waited to give statements.

"I had never seen anything like it before," says Solonen.  

"It was completely ridiculous," adds Stuart, who has offered to return from California where she recently relocated to offer testimony. "The officer was completely out of line."

This is the second incident in the last two weeks in which the behavior of a Charlottesville police officer has been called into public question. At 4:30am on Saturday, September 29, local podcaster/journalist Sean Tubbs and his pregnant wife were awakened by armed Charlottesville police officers on his back porch. In that case, Captain Bibb says he believed his officers– allegedly seeking a robber in the Hammond Street area– acted appropriately, although he admits they could have considered knocking on the front door first.

 "Those things will be talked about in our internal discussions of the incident," says Bibb.

As for Silva and Austin, Bibb says the department is aware of the complaint but cautions against jumping to judgment against the officer. Flaherty, he says, is an  experienced policeman with a "good reputation" among his colleagues. Despite the respect of the department, Bibb says, an internal investigation is under way in which Flaherty as well as other officers and witnesses will be interviewed.

"We'll judge this on its own merits, look into what happened," says Bibb.

Austin, who went to the UVA emergency room on Monday morning when she awoke unable to turn her head, suffered no broken bones. She says the doctor who examined her compared her injuries to the pain one experiences following a car crash. Taking prescription pain killers for much of the next week, Austin missed several days of work at a chiropractor's office and missed her classes at PVCC, where she's preparing to apply for chiropractic school. Her digital camera, debit card, and driver's license– which were knocked from her purse when she was pushed– were found on the Water Street sidewalk by a passerby and returned to her the next day.

Silva wasn't injured during the incident, but he worries that even if acquitted, the arrest could affect his career, which requires a high-level government security clearance. Citing the sensitivity of his work as government contractor, he declined to be photographed.

The original version of this story incorrectly stated the date and street name of the incident at Sean Tubb's home.–ed.