Crosswalk crossfire: Longo memo raises new questions
A memo sent by the Charlottesville Police chief to reassure City leaders about an accident that injured a wheelchair-bound pedestrian reveals that his department, which controversially issued a jaywalking ticket to the victim, ignored two witnesses. And that leaves one of them "outraged."
On November 5, Ben Gathright watched in horror as an Albemarle police officer drove his cruiser into artist Gerry Mitchell at the corner of West Main and Fourth streets. The wheelchair-bound Mitchell, a long-time AIDS victim, subsequently experienced renal failure and is suffering from arm injuries incurred in the incident.
Hours after the accident, a Charlottesville police officer arrived in the University of Virginia Hospital emergency room and served Mitchell with a jaywalking ticket, which some have branded a brother-in-blue defensive move to stave off litigation.
A little over a month later, on December 12, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo sent a memo to City Council defending his department's decisions and alleging that there were "no witnesses" to the accident. Indeed, police never took a formal statement from Gathright– but not because he didn't offer.
Gathright describes "repeated" efforts to offer police his statement about the event. While he says he doesn't know if he spoke with the lead investigator at the scene, Charlottesville police officer Steve Grissom, he brands as "absolutely not true" the idea that police might have been unaware of his presence.
"When I was on the scene that day," Gathright says, "I made myself readily available."
After Albemarle County officer Gregory C. Davis hit Mitchell, it was Gathright who rushed out of his own idling car to Mitchell's side. and he and Davis lifted Mitchell from the street back into his wheelchair. Once Mitchell was on the side of the road, Gathright wrote his contact information on the back of a business card and handed it to Mitchell.
Officer Davis, Gathright claims, then "matter of factly" took the card out of Mitchell's hand and returned to his cruiser, so Gathright wrote his information down for Mitchell a second time.
Gathright says he not only remained at the scene, but at one point walked with an officer to nearby Main Street Market to purchase a bottle of water for Mitchell, who was badly shaken and crying. That unidentified officer, Gathright says, asked him a few questions about what he'd seen, but never attempted to take a formal statement. Gathright says he lingered at the scene so long that eventually the police asked him what he was still doing there.
"I thought, being the only impartial witness, I should stay," Gathright says. Two days after the accident, when he still hadn't been contacted by police, Gathright called the Charlottesville police station and once again identified himself. He says he spoke to both a dispatch sergeant and an officer who said he had been the one supervising the scene, but still no officer took a statement.
Until Thursday, December 20, the day after Chief Longo gave a Hook interview.
Longo's memo to Council was written December 12, six days after the Hook's cover story on the accident was published. The article included Gathright's detailed account of the incident as well as that of a second witness, Haywood Johnson, who'd been aboard city bus #7 stopped at the light at West Main and Fourth streets when Mitchell was hit. Johnson says he has not heard from police.
Although the December 6 Hook cover story contained both men's names, and Gathright had repeatedly offered his number to the police, the chief was pleased to be given the phone numbers of the two witnesses.
"If witnesses have something different, it could very well affect my analysis," says Longo, who explained that he got all the information included in his memo from his officers.
On the morning after the Hook's December 19 interview with Longo, Gathright reports, he received his first official contact from Charlottesville officer Steve Grissom, who told Gathright that he'd been told by his superiors to make the call.
Gathright also received a phone call December 19 from Detective Tim Seitz, the internal affairs investigator with Albemarle County police. Gathright says he sent Grissom an account of the accident he wrote the day it happened, and that he plans to meet in person with Seitz, though at press time on Friday, December 28, they had not set a time.
Gathright isn't the only one bothered by inconsistencies in Longo's memo.
Pedestrian activist Kevin Cox objects to the memo's description of the impact between cruiser and wheelchair. Longo wrote that Mitchell "left the chair and fell to the pavement."
The Hook's requests for a copy of a dash-cam video that captured the incident has been denied by both the city and the county pending resolution of the case.
During the public comment period of the City Council meeting on Monday, December 17, Cox, Mitchell, and several others expressed outrage about the accident and subsequent events. In response, Mayor David Brown suggested that media coverage may have been unfair because police policy prohibits the department from defending itself publicly.
That prompted Councilor Kevin Lynch to mention Longo's three-page memo, which he said had not satisfied his questions about the incident.
Longo's regime is already reeling from another crosswalk incident in which one of his officers pushed a female pedestrian to the pavement after her fiancé berated the officer's driving. The officer arrested the couple, but after a five-hour trial in November, the couple was found not guilty of charges of obstruction and drunk in public, even though Charlottesville District Court Judge Bob Downer implied he believed the officer's account.
Longo says the relentless media coverage– plus another incident in which City police ticketed a wheelchair-bound pedestrian struck by a vehicle– have made it difficult for him to do his job, and he says citizens need to "trust" that he will do the right thing.
Before taking the top police post in Charlottesville seven years ago, Longo worked in internal affairs at the Baltimore police department. His past, he says, proves his willingness to investigate his own officers.
"I take that extremely seriously," he says, mentioning difficult decisions he has made during his tenure as Charlottesville chief. In 2005, he requested that State Police and the Attorney General's office investigate two officers who were subsequently fired and imprisoned for corruption.
"Whether it's an officer or a citizen, the process doesn't change," Longo says. "In the meantime, what's happened is that there's a suspicion– in large part fueled by the media telling this story over and over again– that the public's concerns are falling on deaf ears. They're not."
In his memo, Longo says he is looking into the possibility of having a citizen oversight committee to help increase the public's confidence. In the interview, he says he's open to suggestions to make the department "more transparent."
While Mitchell is scheduled to go to appear in court January 3 (after this paper's presstime) to hear the charges being dropped, it's not because police or prosecutors are willing to admit they were wrong– or apologize to Mitchell.
Instead, Longo wrote– and Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman confirms– the code section Mitchell is charged with violating uses the words "Walk" and "Don't Walk" while the crosswalk where Mitchell was hit uses symbols of a red hand and white walking figure. That, writes Longo, means the law regarding failure to obey a signal cannot be applied. (For the full story on the dropped charges, see page XX.)
Even though the charges against Mitchell have been dropped, pedestrian activist Cox doesn't intend to let the issue disappear. In addition to asking city councilors to investigate how police made the decision to ticket Mitchell, he has sent emails to Albemarle County administrators demanding they be accountable for Mitchell's injuries and expenses whether he chooses to file a civil suit or not.
"Do the humane and charitable thing," Cox writes in an email to County Executive Bob Tucker. Tucker responds that if Davis is found liable, the county's insurance plan will pay, but that the county is not permitted to use public funds to compensate anyone absent a legal process.
Mitchell, whose bones are brittle from the drugs he takes to control AIDS, is still struggling with pain from a shoulder injury he says he sustained when he was lifted from the street. His rotator cuff is torn, and he has several fractures, he says. His medical bills are mounting, and he now knows he's not going to get the one thing he's hoped for: an apology.