Virginia police are investigating the conduct of two officers after a 16-year-old boy was pepper-sprayed and arrested this week. While police claim the officers thought he might be skipping school, the teen's family and a witness who saw the entire encounter say he did nothing wrong.
The Norfolk Police Department said in a statement that two officers saw the teen "walking in the roadway" at about 12:50 p.m. on Monday. "The officers stopped the 16-year-old under the suspicion of truancy, not being in school during school hours," the statement said, adding that at some point, "one of the officers utilized" pepper spray. The incident is now under investigation, while the "officers involved," who the department has not identified, "remain on duty."
Michael Muhammad, a non-attorney spokesperson for the boy's family, detailed what happened from the perspective of "Tariq," whose last name was not provided.
Having received permission from both his mother and Granby High School, Tariq went home early on Monday, Muhammad tells Reason. Tariq travelled part of the way on public transit, then got off and started walking, at which point a "police car pulled up beside him," Muhammad says. The officers said something to him, but Tariq ignored them. "Young Tariq did not feel as if he had to respond and so he didn't within his constitutional rights," Muhammad adds, explaining that this "is the posture that he developed from interactions with the police in his community."
Tariq kept walking. Then, "one of the officers got out of the car and put his hands on him," Muhammad says. But Tariq still wasn't interested in engaging. "I don't have to talk to you all," he told the cop, according to Muhammad. The other officer got out of the car and "maced him," Muhammad says.
Larry Ricks, a market analyst who works in the area, told The Virginian-Pilot he witnessed the whole incident. "[Tariq] did absolutely nothing wrong," Ricks said.
Several videos posted to social media show what happened after Tariq was pepper-sprayed. In one video, the officers, both of whom are white, try to untangle Tariq's backpack as his hands are behind his back. "All I seen was a young man walking across the street looking like he was coming from school," a woman says in the video. "What did he do for them to do all this to him?"
In another video, the officers are holding Tariq up against the police car as they search him. Tariq tells the officers that they're "pulling me to the ground." He asks: "How am I supposed to stand up straight if you got pressure on me?"
As Tariq was being arrested, Ricks spoke with one of the officers in an effort to figure out what the teen had done wrong. The Pilot reports:
[The officer] offered different explanations for stopping the teen. At first, he told Ricks they just wanted to talk with him, but he "gave us attitude." Later, he mentioned a string of break-ins in the area.
At one point, the officer pulled a pencil out of Tariq's pocket. "See, he could've stabbed me in the face with this pencil," Ricks recalled the officer saying.
The officer also discovered an ankle monitor on Tariq's leg. "You think he might be in trouble before?" he told Ricks.
Paramedics soon arrived on the scene, and Tariq was eventually taken home to his mother. "They didn't charge him, they didn't take him to juvenile [detention]," Muhammad says. Still, one of the officers allegedly told Tariq's mother: "Be thankful that it wasn't worse" and "don't make excuses for your child's behavior."
The mother plans to file a complaint with internal affairs. And the family has retained legal counsel due to what Muhammad referred to as the "threatening" statement from police. In the statement, police said "charges for [the] teen will be determined at the conclusion of the internal investigation."
That doesn't sound like the correct procedure, Muhammad says. "Generally, if he were to be charged with anything, it would be a misdemeanor for that type of interaction, and that would be determined by the field investigating officer or the arresting officer. It wouldn't be done via an internal panel," he explains. "We saw the need to secure legal counsel for the young man so as to not have him arrested unsuspectingly or to be charged with a crime when in fact he was observing his constitutional rights and able to move about freely as a citizen."
Muhammad thinks Tariq's experience represents a larger problem in the area.
Chief Larry Boone, he says, "is touting" Norfolk as a good example of "community policing." But "in truth, there is no real penetration in the relationship between police and citizens," Muhammad says, particularly between cops and African Americans. "As citizens, we should have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as any other citizen. But apparently we don't have that."