Use of force: Violent arrest of homeless man on Downtown Mall concerns activists, experts

Body camera footage released by the police department shows an officer grabbing Christopher Gonzalez, moments before throwing him to the ground. Body camera footage released by the police department shows an officer grabbing Christopher Gonzalez, moments before throwing him to the ground.

“If you can stay off the Downtown Mall and I don’t see you again, then I won’t take you,” said the Charlottesville police officer.

“That’s not going to happen,” said Christopher Gonzalez, who had been lying on his back on the mall outside CVS. It was 5:30pm on Wednesday, July 8. The sun was shining. 

“Why?” The officer asked.

“I’m going to stay living right here,” said Gonzalez. He was experiencing homelessness, and had nowhere else to go.

“Then I’m going to take you to jail for drunk in public,” the officer responded.

“Well let’s go then,” Gonzalez said.

The officer turned Gonzalez around and started to put him in handcuffs, but Gonzalez pulled his arm away. Moments later, the officer threw Gonzalez up against the wall of the CVS, kneed him in the thigh, and pinned him on the ground in a headlock, where he held him for around 50 seconds. 

An Instagram video showing the physical altercation was posted later that evening, and soon after, at the request of multiple community members, the Charlottesville Police Department released 17 minutes of body camera footage recording the lead-up to the incident. The body camera fell off during the scuffle, so the Instagram video is the only available footage of the physical arrest.

A citizen on the mall saw Gonzalez lying down and called 911, says the CPD. The body cam footage shows that a police officer arrived first; then a rescue squad appeared and gave Gonzalez a clean bill of health. The officer dismissed the rescue squad, and the altercation began. The police department has not released the officer’s name because the incident is subject to an “ongoing investigation.”

Fortunately, Gonzalez did not appear to suffer any physical injuries. He was charged with felony assault of a police officer, as well as with misdemeanors for public intoxication and obstruction of justice.

The officer’s violent arrest of Gonzalez has drawn concern from justice system experts and activists around town.

“I’m a nurse, and I am a researcher, and one of the things that I focus on a lot is strangulation,” says Kathryn Laughon, a UVA nurse and an activist with Charlottesville’s Defund the Police movement. Laughon says, speaking generally, “use of chokeholds by police—it’s unconscionable. There is no safe way to apply pressure to anyone’s neck.”

“We don’t do chokeholds, we don’t teach any sort of neck restraints,” said Police Chief RaShall Brackney in an interview with Victory Church on June 14. 

“[Gonzalez] really didn’t assault the officer,” says Legal Aid Justice Center community organizer Harold Folley. “He pulled away from the officer, but he didn’t assault the officer. It doesn’t justify the officer beating his ass like that.”

Stephen Hitchcock is the executive director of The Haven, a shelter just a few blocks from where the incident took place. 

“We deal with that kind of situation, someone who’s intoxicated, every day, all day,” says Hitchcock. “And we never have to knee the person, and pummel them, and then slam them to the ground, ever. We’ve never had to do that.”

“You give someone a bottle of water. It changes their breathing, it builds a connection with them. A little act of trust and generosity,” Hitchcock says. “How in the world, in this moment, could an officer think that was the way to address this person who’s intoxicated?”

The officer’s treatment of Gonzalez fits into a larger pattern of criminalizing poverty and addiction, say these activists. And Black and brown people feel the effect of those practices at a disproportionate rate.

The officer, standing just a few feet from restaurants where affluent patrons drink the night away, offered Gonzalez a deal—leave the mall and we won’t arrest you. “A drunk in public—it is against the law,” Hitchcock says. “But how many white, wealthy people behind the looping chains [of restaurant patios] are also drunk?”

“To say that, in the city, there are certain places where you can’t be drunk in public, but if you move a block away it’s not a criminal act—that tells me that this isn’t about health and safety,” says Laughon.

“So often, you see [UVA] students getting trashed,” Folley says, “and the officers assist them, help them to where they need to go…But that’s the difference between Black and brown people and white people.”

Arresting people who are experiencing health problems or homelessness makes it more difficult for them to get back on their feet, Hitchcock points out. If the felony charge sticks, it will be harder for Gonzalez to find housing and employment.

The body cam footage shows police officers misbehave in smaller ways, too. Several of the officers who appear in the video are not wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID. And as an officer pats down Gonzalez, he pulls bits of trash and a bottle cap out of Gonzalez’s pocket, which he then litters on the ground. 

Activists see this incident as an example of why it’s necessary to radically change the way police operate in the city. 

“What I see is the importance of a strong Civilian Review Board,” says Folley. “The police should not police themselves.” (Charlottesville’s Police Civilian Review Board has just begun meeting, but it has been entangled in a dispute with City Council over its own bylaws.)

“This is a perfect example of why using armed police to be our first responders to just about every situation is a real problem,” says Laughon. “The money that goes into policing, and to then criminalizing behavior, could be better spent on housing, on health care—those are things that would make the community safer and healthier.”

 

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soo really?
Guest
soo really?

Cville Albemarle covid cases over 800. Stay safe kiddies.

soo really?
Guest
soo really?

Well let’s go then. But then pulls his arms away while the officer attempts to handcuff him. Too bad Gonzalez was not sincere in his statement and did in fact resist arrest.

Fitz
Guest
Fitz

Amen

soo really?
Guest
soo really?

Just another reason to avoid alcohol…
However violence would not have been necessary if only he had not resisted arrest. He says let’s go, but then pulls his arms away.
Maybe don’t get drunk and lay down on the mall?
And PLENTY of white students have been arrested for drunk in public…
Article does a great job of making the drunk guy laying down on the mall a victim.

soo really?
Guest
soo really?

Nowhere else to go? Actually he had a choice to go somewhere else or go to jail. HE CHOSE JAIL

Angie
Guest
Angie

He could have gone anywhere. There are several parks nearby where the hobos also hang.

Smaybe
Guest
Smaybe

Four of us observed the whole incident closely (not all white and none affluent either FYI) and our observation unanimously was that the cop handled himself quite professionally. The cop de-escalated and gave the guy a chance to move on. The homeless man DID make a move to get physical but the cop looked very athletic and fast reacting. The knee to the thigh to stun him looked like the slightest of physicalities to us. He got up and walked on not limping. In spite of how the Instagram video might look there was no throat area holds. The homeless… Read more »

Rachel
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Rachel

Indeed. Honestly, even before the PD dropped the body cam footage, I heard ‘drunk’ and ‘homeless’ and ‘downtown mall’ and KNEW there was more to the story. I’m hardly one to lionize cops, but…the hobos in the dtm are not oppressed, full stop. If anything, they oppress the people who work in the dtm. They are treated very well (relative to homeless in any other city), and given a VERY lose leash. The city can’t really do anything to stop them from being a general nuisance without getting sued on their behalf. Plenty are cool, but plenty are also drunks,… Read more »

Grace P. Cole
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Grace P. Cole

Huh

NobodysFool
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NobodysFool

One of them kept hitting on me the other day and when I politely asked him to leave me alone he screamed and swore at me. He seemed mentally ill or drunk, I have been picking up lunch every day from the Haven since I lost my job and the vile comments the homeless men make towards me is disturbing, as I just said, one of them kept saying inappropriate commemts recently and when I asked him to stop he screamed like a banshee and couldn’t stop saying the “F” word. These homeless men are not all innocent fairies tip… Read more »

Fitz
Guest
Fitz

Thank you!

smaybe
Guest
smaybe

My friend reminded me that one of the officers picked up the trash too and threw it away.

soo really?
Guest
soo really?

Way to go cville. We are over 900 cases of covid cville alb combined.
Also don’t get drunk and lie down on the mall and then say lets go to jail only to resist arrest. Pro Tip

John Gray
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John Gray

The police are in tough spot, dealing with problems no one else will. Drunk and lying on the street is not good behavior. Neither is using public spaces as a rest room. Why aren’t the folks from Haven (Mr. Hitchcock) or Defund the Police (Ms. Laughon) at the Downtown Mall doing what they don’t want the police to do? There are hundreds of entry level jobs advertised around C-ville. They could help Mr. Gonzalez find one and clean up his life.

Mitchell carr
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Mitchell carr

1) Those who are “drunk behind the ropes” don’t cause problems by laying on their back. 2) The UVA students who are “assisted” would also be “arrested” if they did the same as this person. 3) When a police officer gives you a lawful order but also gives you an easy out and you don’t take it you SHOULD be arrested and you SHOULD be punished so that you don’t do it again. That is the reason we have a penal system in the first place. 4) The Haven deals with this type of situation every day, often with the… Read more »

Fitz
Guest
Fitz

Yipee! The theme of the comments prove we are collectively bone weary of the delusional reflexive far left victimization narrative. No wonder this tabloid is on its last breath. Perhaps heaven forbid this writer finds himself in the nightmare of a home invasion (of the kind known to Cville’s history); then, instead of calling the brutal racist cops to victimize the invader when he resists arrest, he will call Social Services instead so they can help him get his life on track. Moreover, he can tithe 15% of his income and assets to help fund that goal.

edward
Guest
edward

QUOTE “The money that goes into policing, and to then criminalizing behavior, could be better spent on housing, on health care—those are things that would make the community safer and healthier.” UNQUOTE The quote comes from someone making – according to 2018-19 state employee db – $101,000 which is 151% of the median salary at UVA where the speaker works as a professor. In other words: spoken from a place of VERY HIGH COMPENSATION and VERY HIGH LOCAL PRIVILEGE. One website reports that the AVERAGE salary for City police is BELOW $50,000, less than HALF the HIGHLY PRIVILEGED POSITION of… Read more »