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Commentary :: Civil & Human Rights : Crime & Police

Party. Police. Pandemonium.

Party. Police. Pandemonium. A writer recounts the Memorial Day weekend event that has Richmond Police on the defensive.

by Amy Biegelsen
June 9, 2004

I got out of work late Saturday night, May 29, and went to a going-away party for a friend of a friend who was about to set off on a solo bike trip to Portland, Ore.

I’m still new in town, but I recognized many of the partygoers as recent Virginia Commonwealth University graduates. Minor Treat, a Minor Threat cover band fronted by the guest of honor, was in the middle of its first and only appearance. I had stepped outside for some air when I saw three or four police officers at the end of the block coming toward the group of kids in front of the building.

The music was still playing while the cops began pouring out beer from a few bottles on the sidewalk.

The party was in an apartment on the corner of Second and Main streets, not in a particularly residential neighborhood. But the music had been loud and it was after midnight. I didn’t hear the cops ask anyone to leave, but their presence made it pretty clear that the party would either disband or quiet down soon. Fine with me. I’d spent a long day at work and was ready to head home.

But my copy of Joan Didion’s “The White Album? was still in the building where the party was, so I followed the line of cops inside to retrieve my book.

The apartment was on the second floor, and the people who had been living there were moving out. No furniture was left, and the apartment was empty except for the kids and the band. It was a loft-style space, about 40 by 15 feet.

I followed the police into the room intending to make inquiries about my book. It was hot and sticky in the room, but there were about 100 kids dancing to Minor Treat. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. Most people in the crowd seemed to be there to cheer the singer in his farewell performance and wish him luck on his bike trip.

The officers never announced their presence, but people began to take notice. The crowd quieted and parted to make an aisle for the cops. They walked straight up to the band, without saying anything, and threw the singer’s microphone on the ground.

Then the police turned around and filed out.

Party attendants began to boo. I was confused about why the cops had come and gone so quickly.

I became even more confused when my eyes suddenly began to sting and I had trouble breathing. It turned out the officers had set off a pepper spray “fogger.? There had been no warning.

The crowd quickly went from quiet to distressed. Kids lowered their heads and pulled their T-shirts up to cover their faces as they shuffled across the room. The only exit was a door opposite the band. It led to a staircase about 3 feet wide. I was surprised by how calmly people exited the building.

Meanwhile, the friend who invited me to the party saw her roommate, the drummer for Minor Treat, slumped over his drum set. She knew he had asthma and tried to open the windows, but they were still sealed shut from the winter. Another party guest helped to break out the glass and push the drummer’s head outside for fresh air. People began breaking out other windows to get ventilation.

Out on the street, officers began using handheld pepper sprayers directly in people’s faces. Some angry party attendants began throwing beer bottles in response.

The situation had transformed from calm to chaotic. In addition to waiting tables I am a free-lance journalist, so I got out my notebook.

I began collecting names and badge numbers from the officers. There were many more cops by now — at this point I counted 14 police vehicles, at least one of them unmarked, and two ambulances. Some officers told me their names and moved on; others asked me to wait until afterward when they could talk or simply ignored me.

I saw one cop shove a party attendant and I asked for his badge number. He told me to “leave his fu—ing street.? I told him I was a journalist and asked again.

Suddenly, he and three other officers knocked me onto the ground. Although I was offering no resistance, two restrained me while a third cuffed me. I was led toward the paddy wagon, while the officer I had been questioning tried, unsuccessfully, to pry my notes out of my hand.

According to friends who saw the rest of the evening, the situation escalated. There were more violent collisions, more thrown bottles, more pepper spray and many more detainments.

While I was in the back of the wagon, one officer came to speak with me. She had been dealing with friends of mine who wanted to know where I would be taken so they could meet me there. She told me she was surprised by the “fogger,? too. She was coughing while we spoke, and her eyes were visibly irritated from the spray.

As things calmed down, I was able to chat with another officer sitting outside the wagon. He apologized for knocking me over, saying he had been tripped. He also told me there had been a homicide that night in the Mechanicsville Fairfield area.

For a while, the officers could not tell me who the arresting officer was or what I was being charged with. After about an hour and a half, I was released with a summons for disorderly conduct. My trial date is July 27.

I spoke with an attorney who said that the maximum fine for a class one misdemeanor is $2,500 or a year in prison, but he’s pretty sure I’ll get off.

The next day I learned there had been not one but three fatal shootings in Richmond that night; one of them was by a police officer. S

Letters to the editor may be sent to: letters@styleweekly.com

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News :: Elections & Legislation

Frustrated Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks Will Step Down, Won't Run for Mayor

Hicks to step down as city commonwealth's attorney

He rules out mayoral bid and says after three terms, it's time for 'something else'

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney David M. Hicks will not seek re-election next fall.

He said he's not burned out and doesn't want to run for mayor.

Hicks said he has "loved" most of his time as the city's top prosecutor, but "after three terms, it's time to do something else."

He told his staff yesterday afternoon. Earlier in the day, he spoke with The Times-Dispatch about stepping down.

"There's been so many rumors and speculations with this mayoral thing that I wanted to control it," he said. "I've always endeavored to separate the day-to-day working of my staff from the politics of this job, and the rumors were really starting to have an impact on my staff."

Hicks said he has not nailed down plans for when he finishes his third four-year term, but local attorneys and law-enforcement officials said they believe he will go into private practice.

"I've got time to figure that out," he said, chuckling.

Today marks the 11th anniversary of when Hicks beat his predecessor, Joseph D. Morrissey, for the Democratic nomination. He was 33 when he took office the following January.

He has not ruled out a future in politics, though he declined to discuss any specific plans.

"I'd be very surprised if elected office isn't in my future," he said.

Many local law-enforcement officials speculate that Michael N. Herring, a local defense attorney and former assistant commonwealth's attorney, will run to replace Hicks. Herring worked under Morrissey and Hicks and handled mostly narcotics cases.

Herring could not be reached yesterday for comment.

. . .

In recent years, Hicks has become increasingly vocal about his frustration with his job, mainly because of what he called problems with City Hall and police.

"When you see the benefits of your labor, that gives you energy. When you see the policies of City Hall erode things you've helped build, that takes a hell of a lot more energy," he said, adding that his greatest disappointment is that "we've gotten far away from the community-based spirit of law enforcement."

Hicks has publicly said he wants to bring back former city police Chief Jerry Oliver, though he said he does not blame the current chief, Andre Parker, for the city's homicide rate, which has edged up in the past few years.

"I just think Parker reflects the wishes of the people he works for" - namely City Manager Calvin Jamison, Hicks said.

Parker would not comment yesterday on Hicks' decision to step down.

Jamison did not return a phone call.

"When Jerry Oliver got run out of here by the manager, that was the start of the problems," Hicks said. Oliver left Richmond in 2002 to become the police chief in Detroit.

City Councilman G. Manoli Loupassi, who heads the city's public-safety committee, called Hicks' tenure "a mixed bag." Quarreling among Hicks, Jamison and Parker has been a distraction for the city, Loupassi said.

"It's really unfortunate. All three men work hard, and it's been extremely frustrating with the position that I'm in. I like all three of them, and I can't get them to come together," he said.

Their infighting came to a head in November, when Jamison - along with Mayor Rudolph C. McCollum and Loupassi - held a news conference in support of Parker. Jamison criticized Hicks, saying the prosecutor was not a "team player" because Hicks publicly said the city should rehire Oliver.

"I'm entitled to my opinion," Hicks responded later that day.

Loupassi, who worked for Hicks for five years in the 1990s before he left to go into private practice, said he sees prosecutions under Project Exile as one of Hicks' most significant marks on the city.

"David was the person who really got that thing going, although other people took credit for it, and he let them," Loupassi said.

Loupassi said he considers Hicks "a very good trial attorney. When he steps into the courtroom, anyone would say he's a formidable prosecutor."

. . .

As the city's lead prosecutor, Hicks has prided himself on being open with the media and not speaking through public-relations people.

Diane Abato, one of the city's deputy commonwealth's attorneys, called Hicks "a great commonwealth's attorney, a great boss and a great person. The city will feel his loss."

When she came to work for Hicks seven years ago, he put her in charge of domestic-violence cases. Last year, Abato won the YWCA's outstanding woman award for law, which she said would not have happened without Hicks' support.

"There basically was no domestic-violence program before David. If a woman came to court and was terrified and wanted to drop charges, they got dropped. That doesn't happen now," she said. "He has saved lives because of that. But he doesn't blow his own horn. With him, it's just about doing the right thing."

Tony Spencer, another deputy, met Hicks on the first day of a Spanish 101 class at the University of Virginia. Hicks was a freshman, Spencer a senior.

They have been friends ever since.

"He's always been very intelligent, motivated, honest and hard-working," Spencer said.

Hicks offered Spencer a deputy post in 2002.

"He's the same guy he was in college, just with a lot more education and experience," Spencer said. "He's a pretty rock-solid guy."

Growing up in Plainfield, N.J., Hicks knew he wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement after his father was murdered when he was 14. After graduating from U.Va., Hicks went on to study law there.

He worked at the Richmond law firm of Sands, Anderson, Marks & Miller before joining Morrissey's staff in 1990.

Hicks yesterday called the commonwealth's attorney's job "a growth process."

"When I started this job, Bill Clinton was in the second year of his first administration, people still liked O.J. [Simpson], I was 33 years old and had been married for three months. I'll be 44 in September, I have two kids in school, and I've grown up a lot in office."

Hicks oversees 34 attorneys and an additional 40 staff members. He makes $146,000 a year.

"You have to make tough decisions every day, and you live by them. It's not for the faint of heart," he said.

One of his most unpopular calls was to prosecute Richmond police Detective David D. Melvin three times in the shooting death of an unarmed robbery suspect. Melvin was acquitted this year of charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the death of Verlon M. Johnson. The first two trials ended in mistrials.

"I've not always made decisions that people liked, but that comes with the territory," he said.

Steven D. Benjamin, a local defense attorney who represents the Johnson family, yesterday praised Hicks for his work on the Melvin case.

"No person is above the law," Benjamin said. "We can only hope that Hicks' replacement will be a prosecutor of similar resolve and devotion to the truth."

. . .

Since the General Assembly approved plans to elect a mayor in the city, Hicks has been one of a handful of names floated for the job.

"Obviously, all the discussion about mayor made me sit down and give long, hard consideration to it, so I sat down with my family. But I decided against it," he said. "And my wife kind of put it on the table, 'By the way, how much longer are you going to be [commonwealth's attorney]?'"

Hicks' wife, Valerie, is an emergency-room doctor. They have two sons, Robert, 7, and Christopher, 5.

"For the first eight years of our life together, she worked in the ER, and I was commonwealth's attorney. People ask me, 'How do you deal with all the stress?'" he said. "I'm used to stress. It's our normality. I don't know how not to do stress."

Contact Paige Akin at (804) 649-6671 or pakin@timesdispatch.com

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News :: Animal Rights

Norfolk PETA Activist Selected for Reality TV Show

Activist in Norfolk selected for TV show

Cable reality program is looking for presidential candidates who will be chosen by the viewers


Jun 8, 2004

Democrat John Kerry isn't the only one readying for a challenge for the presidency this November.

Norfolk resident Bruce Friedrich will kick off his campaign for president today as a finalist on a new cable reality television show.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' director of vegan campaigns is one of about 12 finalists selected for the "American Candidate" series on the Showtime network. Viewers will help choose a candidate for president, who will win $200,000 and national media exposure.

Candidates compete in a series of events designed to simulate a real presidential campaign. Today's event is the first assignment for the candidates and includes putting together a campaign rally with just $100.

"I do appreciate the opportunity to be a face for animal rights, a face for PETA and a face for compassion for all animals," Friedrich, 34, told The Associated Press.

If he wins, he plans to donate the prize to animal- and human-rights charities. He was selected from a pool of about 1,500 applicants, the AP reported.

Friedrich's platform includes a call for all animals to be covered by the Animal Welfare Act, for the United States to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, and for voting to be based on proportional representation, according to the show's Web site.

The series will air for 10 weeks beginning Aug. 1, including one episode to be filmed at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics in Charlottesville.

Today's kickoff will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the PETA office in Norfolk.

Contact Scott Goldstein at (804) 649-6719 or sgoldstein@timesdispatch.com

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News :: Crime & Police

Treating party as riot may have been a self-fulfulling prophecy

Treating party as riot may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy
Sunday, June 6, 2004

The fallout is still stinging a week after Richmond police discharged a pepper-spray fogger in the midst of crowded upstairs apartment in the heart of the city.

"I am concerned about our response to that circumstance," Richmond Police Chief Andre Parker told us Wednesday during his weekly media briefing.

Manufacturers of the large foggers, which are about the size of a kitchen fire extinguisher, say these "riot control" devices are best suited for outdoor use.

The U.S. Department of Justice stresses "the necessity of warnings prior to application" of any type of pepper spray.

And yet, early last Sunday morning, a Richmond police supervisor activated his fogger - reportedly without warning - inside a second-floor apartment on the 200 block of East Main Street crowded with more than 100 partygoers. Their only avenue of escape: a 3-foot-wide stairway.

Consider that pepper spray, which contains an inflammatory irritant made from nature's hottest chili peppers, causes intense burning pain in your eyes, which immediately flood with tears. You have to be stoic to even force your eyes open. Your lungs feel like they're on fire. You might gag or vomit. Your diaphragm will likely contract, forcing you to bend over as secretions pour from your nose.

Now, imagine a crowd of people suffering from those symptoms trying to flee down a stairway no wider than your front door.

"It was pandemonium," said partygoer Greg Wells, who was among those who broke out apartment windows in an attempt to get some fresh air.

Mya Anitai, a 22-year-old waitress and singer for the band VCR, which played at the party that night, is grateful her boyfriend plucked her 4-foot, 11-inch figure out of the crush and helped her to one of the broken windows. "There was so much [pepper spray], it was obscene," she recalled. "My boyfriend was vomiting out the window while he was helping me breathe."

I was on the scene of last weekend's near-riot within a couple of minutes, while partygoers were still coughing and crying and screaming at police. Several young people were slammed to the ground and handcuffed. Some seemingly deserved it. Some didn't. To this observer, some of the officers had lost their cool and were part of the problem instead of the solution.

No, I wasn't there when the trouble started. I've spent the ensuing days trying to get a feel for what happened. From what I've seen, the police internal-affairs office appears to be conducting a thorough investigation.

The apartment's leaseholder, Anda Lewis, held the going-away party for a friend. Lewis was getting ready to move, as well, so all the furniture had been removed from the rectangular space, which measures roughly 20 feet by 40 feet.

By 12:30 a.m., Minor Treat (a Minor Threat cover band) was playing. "Everybody was having a great time," Anitai said. Many in the crowd were bouncing against each other in the usual punk-rock, slam-dancing style.

Meanwhile, numerous partygoers were downstairs on the sidewalk. According to police, that crowd numbered 100 or so. But several of those who were among that crowd said it was more like 35.

Some of them were drinking beer, police and partiers agree.

According to Parker, cruising patrol officers spotted the crowd on the sidewalk and stopped to investigate. They were not responding to a citizen noise complaint, he said.

Lewis, a 27-year-old artist and substitute teacher, said there's no one living in that immediate area (near the city library), which is why the apartment was a good place for a party.

She came downstairs when the police arrived and talked with the officers outside. "It was very calm," she said of those on the sidewalk and of the police.

She was asked to go up and stop the party, which she did. She crossed the room and told the guitar player what was going on, but the band played on.

Jennifer Lawhorne, a 24-year-old substitute teacher and writer, was upstairs and saw what Lewis was doing, so she followed her downstairs as Lewis reported back to the police.

The crowd downstairs was fine, Lawhorne said.

But according to Parker and an internal-affairs investigator, some of those upstairs spit and threw bottles out of the windows at this point. Officers on the scene called for back-up at about 12:34 a.m.

"Absolutely not," Lewis said when asked about bottles coming out of the windows.

Lawhorne also said she is certain that no bottles were thrown out of the apartment at that point. Others told me the same thing.

Lewis said some of the officers went up the stairs to her apartment without her permission.

Parker said the officers don't need permission to enter a party they determine to be overly loud and/or unruly.

I have to say here that one of the officers entering the party - the supervisor with the pepper-spray fogger - is one of my favorite police officers. Lt. Leonard "Lenny" Brightwell is a Vietnam veteran, an old-school cop, a long-timer with a military bearing, a delightful sense of humor and, usually, a low-key, personable approach to his job. That said, he's no wimp.

Upstairs, Brightwell and at least one other officer waded through the crowd. One of them grabbed the singer's microphone and told him the party was over. The music stopped.

The crowd immediately started booing.

"It's kind of customary when police break up a party," Anitai said.

Parker said there was no indication that those upstairs attacked the officers in the crowd. It appears the officers heard some abusive language and were "jostled around" a bit by the large crowd, he said.

Anitai wonders if the officers didn't get the wrong idea from the slam-dancing going on as they entered the party.

In any event, the fogger was deployed, and all hell broke loose.

I haven't been able to talk with Brightwell because the case is being investigated, but Lawhorne said he told her at the scene that he sprayed the fogger toward the ceiling and that he got the same dose as everyone else.

Police radioed citywide for help.

Several witnesses, including Lewis, said pepper spray was fired up at the people hanging out of the windows. Some of those who approached officers on the ground were also sprayed.

Some of those handcuffed were released once the situation calmed down. Four people were charged with either disorderly conduct or obstruction of justice.

Parker said pepper spray was deployed three times, once inside the apartment and twice outside.

He called what happened "order maintenance."

"There weren't a lot of options police had. . . . People didn't follow our instructions" to leave the area.

"It doesn't appear there was a violation of policy," Parker said. But the incident won't escape review "as far as modification of policy," he said.

Richmond police insiders say the near-riot can't be examined without the context of the fatal shooting by two Richmond officers that occurred in the East End four hours earlier. In that situation, one officer was dragged briefly by a young motorist with a gun in his car while trying to flee a traffic stop. That scene turned volatile, with officers being yelled at by witnesses and other onlookers crowding the area.

I'm told that kind of incident - an officer seemingly endangered, a fatal shooting and a hostile response - sends a chill, a charge, through the entire force.

Lawhorne and numerous others I interviewed are baffled by what happened on Main Street.

"I don't know what possessed them to use" the fogger, Lawhorne said. "It seems to me they had a present agenda when they went in there."

You, dear reader, may have a much different opinion.

But one of Lawhorne's statements can't debated:

"The police are really lucky they don't have a wrongful-death suit on their hands."

Contact Mark at (804) 649-6822 or mholmberg@timesdispatch.com

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News :: Civil & Human Rights

Longtime community advocate Ezekiel Howard dies

PETERSBURG - Ezekiel Howard, a local civil rights advocate during the 1960s, a seventh ward representative for the Democratic Party and a longtime member of the NAACP, died Thursday. He was 82.

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News :: International Relations

Right-Wing Republicans Trying to Sink the Law of the Sea

Radical right-wing Republicans in concert with oil and mining companies and the Department of Defense are trying to keep the US Senate from ratifying the Law of the Sea. It would pass with 90 votes if a vote were allowed. I can see pros and cons to it; does this have anything to do with the struggle for global justice?

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News :: Environment

Activists decry plan to alter I-81

The two groups said that 40 localities oppose the project, citing numerous concerns.

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