NEWS- Public outcry: Mitchell's friends petition, plan concert
A community's frustration over the case of a wheelchair-bound man who was struck by a police cruiser and then ticketed is now the driving force behind two new efforts: a petition demanding that an outside organization investigate the Charlottesville and Albemarle police departments' handling of the incident, and a benefit concert to raise funds for victim Gerry Mitchell, whose long-term health problems appear to have been exacerbated by the accident.
"I wanted to do something," says petition author Jim McKinley-Oakes, a psychologist and friend of Mitchell's.
"I'm clear from talking to Gerry and seeing the video and talking to Chief Longo," says McKinley-Oakes, "that the police department is not being honest about their intention to investigate."
The petition briefly outlines the facts of the case, then makes its demand: "We call upon the Charlottesville City Council and the Attorney General of the Commonwealth to hold investigations into police misconduct and suspected corruption in the city and county police departments."
Both city and county police departments have denied they handled the case any differently than they would have if a civilian instead of County police officer Gregory C. Davis had been the driver of the car that struck Mitchell. Both departments have also conducted their own internal investigations. The city's investigation is complete, according to City police chief Tim Longo, who declined to reveal the outcome. The county's investigation is due to wrap up in the next week, according to Albemarle Police spokesperson Lt. John Teixeira, the only official who has offered Mitchell a public apology.
At Hook press time, the online petition– gopetition.com/petitions/justice-for-gerry-mitchell.html– had garnered 34 signatures, and McKinley-Oakes says he has collected approximately 20 more by hand.
The trouble began on Monday morning, November 5, when Mitchell, an artist who has suffered from HIV/AIDS since 1981, was on his way home from running errands at Reid's supermarket and Staples office supply store when he was struck by an Albemarle County police cruiser in the crosswalk as he crossed West Main in his motorized wheelchair. The accident itself was traumatic, but Mitchell, who turned 54 on Christmas, was further traumatized when Charlottesville police, who investigated the accident, ticketed him for failing to obey a pedestrian signal. Insult was added to injury when the summons was served as he was being treated in the UVA ER.
The charges against Mitchell were dropped January 3 after prosecutors claimed that the code did not apply to pedestrian signals using symbols instead of words.
Aside from eyewitnesses, whom police did not interview until after the charge against Mitchell was dropped, the critical piece of evidence in the case was a dash-cam video of the accident, shot from the front of Davis' cruiser.
On December 12, Longo sent a controversial memo to city council offering the official version of events, denying knowledge of any witnesses, and claiming that Mitchell had appeared in the crosswalk so suddenly that the accident was unavoidable.
Following the January 7 release of the video by Albemarle County Police, however, many viewers remained disturbed, particularly by the claim that Officer Davis could not have seen Mitchell. The video shows only a narrow field in front of the cruiser– approximately 45 degrees by the Hook's estimation, far less than the minimum 100 degrees of peripheral vision required by Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles for obtaining a driver's license. (A human's full field of vision is 180 degrees, according to data on the Massachusetts Department of Motor Vehicles website.)
Chief Longo has repeatedly said he stands by his claims in the memo, and he did not immediately respond to the Hook's request for comment on the petition. Despite Longo's insistence, one witness to the accident says he remains confused by the Chief's claims that Davis had no chance to stop.
"I don't understand how [Officer Davis] didn't see him," says Haywood Johnson, who was aboard city bus #7, which was heading west on West Main Street and was stopped at the light when the accident happened. Viewing the video for the first time on Tuesday, January 15, in the Hook office, Johnson shook his head.
"I was mad when I saw it then," says Johnson, "and I'm still mad."
In addition to posting the petition, several of Mitchell's friends are also organizing a benefit concert to be held at the 214 Community Arts Center (the former Prism on Rugby Road) some time in February. The event, says organizer and Mitchell pal Dan Dorsey, is "intended to help Gerry not only financially, but hopefully emotionally and spiritually as well."
Mitchell will need that kind of support, as his health has become even more precarious since the accident. He was hospitalized on New Year's Day with severe joint swelling and pain, sent home for three days, then readmitted on Monday, January 14 in congestive heart failure.
Although Mitchell's health problems long pre-date the accident, McKinley-Oakes believes the emotional strain of the ordeal has further sickened his friend, whom he calls "one of the most generous people I've ever known," and someone who "in a completely genuine way focuses on what's positive and lets go of what's negative."
Watching his friend struggle through the accident and its aftermath has been difficult, says McKinley-Oakes.
"I've seen the emotional and psychological effect that the behavior the police department has had," he says. "It's been very, very hard on him."