Fall-out: Who ordered ticket for run-down pedestrian?
What did they know and when did they know it? That's the question now being asked of Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo and Albemarle Chief John Miller about the decision to ticket a wheelchair pedestrian after he'd been struck by an Albemarle County Police Cruiser in a city crosswalk on November 5.
"I want to know the name of the person who ordered the ticketing of Gerry Mitchell," says pedestrian activist Kevin Cox, who plans to demand accountability at the next City Council meeting on December 17.
Mitchell, a 53-year-old Yale-trained artist who has battled HIV and AIDS for the past 26 years, was coming home from a trip to Reid's supermarket and Staples office supply store around 10am on Monday, November 5, when he stopped at the corner of West Main Street and Fourth Street and waited to cross. When the signal turned green in front of him, Mitchell entered the crosswalk.
Moments later, his wheelchair was struck from behind by an Albemarle County police cruiser driven by Officer Gregory Charles Davis, who was turning left from Fourth Street onto West Main. Mitchell was thrown from his chair into the street as several people looked on, stunned.
"I don't know how the officer couldn't see him," says Haywood Johnson, who saw the accident from aboard city bus 7, which was stopped at the light heading west on West Main.
If the accident itself upset witnesses, what happened in the hours that followed has caused outrage.
As Mitchell was being treated in the UVA emergency room, Charlottesville police officer Steve Grissom arrived with a ticket charging Mitchell with failure to obey a pedestrian signal. Mitchell says Grissom told him police had a video of him crossing while the pedestrian signal said "don't walk."
Mitchell says he was following the green traffic signal and didn't realized he might have been required to press a button to cause the pedestrian signal to change.
The accident happened just five weeks after another incident that raised questions about the way Charlottesville Police treat citizens in crosswalks. On September 29, Charlottesville officer Michael Flaherty arrested a couple after his driving was loudly questioned. In a five-hour trial November 29, a Charlottesville judge ruled in favor of the couple on charges of public drunkenness and obstruction.
Cox believes the ticket given to Mitchell is a case of city police trying to forestall future liability– and not even for its own force.
"I want to know who in the city," says Cox, "thinks it's more important to protect Albemarle County from a lawsuit than it is to protect a victim of an inattentive driver."
Although a section of the Virginia State Code demands that turning vehicles must "at all times" yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, officer Davis was not ticketed.
Through their spokespeople, both Albemarle and Charlottesville police departments have declined comment, and neither Chief Longo nor Chief Miller returned the Hook's call for comment.
Several Charlottesville City Councilors say they're aware of the case and will welcome public comment.
"I'd be surprised if someone didn't bring it up at the next meeting," says Mayor David Brown, who says he knows about the incident but hasn't heard from any constituents. "I'm not happy with the situation, but I'd like to hear all sides before I decide what should be done," he says.
Councilor and retired Charlottesville fire chief Julian Talliaferro says he, too, hasn't heard enough to render a judgment. Councilor Kevin Lynch agrees more information is needed about Mitchell's ticket before he can make specific comment, but he says he has general concerns about the ways in which police interact with the community.
"I've seen police officers driving fast without sirens, without any obvious reason," he says, adding that he's also fielded complaints from neighborhoods concerned with police driving. While he says he believes Longo does support "community policing" and building relationships between police and residents, he says nationally policing is trending toward surveillance and aggressive tactics.
Councilors Kendra Hamilton and Dave Norris did not return the Hook's calls by press time, but the three councilors interviewed all say they would consider supporting a citizen police oversight committee like the ones formed in numerous municipalities across the country, including Albemarle County.
"There have certainly been situations where having an independent citizen panel that could evaluate and make a finding earlier than the department's own internal review process would be helpful," says Lynch.
"If you're going to have an open and transparent government, I don't see a problem with having a review board," says Taliaferro. "I would suspect it tends to support the actions of police officers more often than not." And Brown, too, says he'd be interested in discussing the idea.
For Mitchell, talk of a police oversight committee and even the fairness of his ticket are not top priorities. Instead, he's coping with rapidly deteriorating health. The day after the accident, he was hospitalized for several days for renal failure. Soon after he was released, pain in his shoulder became so severe, he says, that he can no longer use a paint brush. His doctors have suggested he has broken bones in his shoulder from being lifted from the street into his wheelchair by Officer Davis and another witness, he says, adding that he is scheduled for further diagnostic tests after press time.
On Tuesday, December 11, Mitchell was unable to speak on the phone because of his pain, something his brother, Corky Mitchell, a former Air Force pilot and Dean of Students at Buford School, says has been unrelenting since the accident. Though Gerry Mitchell has been praised for his generous contributions to charities, his artistic talent, and his gentle manner, he is now struggling to maintain his positive attitude.
"He's dealt with a lot of stuff that's opened my eyes to the plight of the disabled," his brother says. "He's trying to be independent, but he's becoming less capable, and this seems to be accelerating a little bit."
Corky Mitchell worries that the injuries Gerry Mitchell suffered will rob him of the ability to pursue his passion, painting. He also worries that the stress of defending himself against the ticket will further weaken his older brother. Still, he says, he hopes the incident and the ensuing publicity will help prevent similar incidents and will bring attention to the challenges handicapped people face every day.
"We as a community need to open our eyes," he says. "There are little things that make a huge difference in a person's day such as whether they can get onto a sidewalk– and whether they can cross the street and feel confident no one's going to rear-end them in their wheelchair."
Mitchell's court case has been continued to January 3 at 9am in Charlottesville District Court.