A Muslim woman running for a Northern Virginia school board seat alleges she was a victim of police brutality and discrimination after being pepper-sprayed and dragged from her car after a traffic stop and later forced to remove her headscarf.
Abrar Omeish said she was traveling March 5 between campaign events when she was stopped by a police officer after turning right on a red light at a Fairfax intersection.
Omeish, who is seeking an at-large seat on the Fairfax County School Board, pleaded no contest in May to failing to exhibit her driver’s license, according to court records. She also pleaded no contest to failing to stop before turning right on a red traffic light.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Omeish took responsibility for the traffic violation but said the police officer used excessive force.
“It makes no logical sense to me that, within three minutes, an officer would have to pull mace and that it would escalate and devolve into everything it was that night, over a minor traffic violation,” she said.
A Fairfax County police spokeswoman said Omeish defied more than a dozen requests to provide proper identification. The officer who stopped Omeish chose to deploy pepper spray because the candidate “actively resisted arrest,” according to Emilie Voss, the police spokeswoman.
The incident is the subject of an administrative investigation, which Voss said is standard practice after an incident involving use of force. Voss declined to comment further on the investigation and declined to make dashboard camera footage from the traffic stop available until “it no longer interferes with the integrity of the administrative investigation.”
Omeish did not file a formal complaint with Fairfax County police, she said, because the department contacted her the day after the arrest, indicating it wanted to investigate the case for possible bias. Fairfax police said that review was launched as part of the administrative investigation because an allegation of bias was made.
The officer, identified in court and police papers as J.W. Patrick and J. Patrick, declined to comment through the Fairfax Fraternal Order of Police. Brad Carruthers, president of the FOP, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. The officer remains on duty, police said.
The officer approached Omeish’s blue hatchback on Gallows Road shortly after 8 p.m. March 5. The officer told Omeish she did not stop before turning right, recalled Omeish, a legal fellow at a human rights law firm and substitute teacher.
The school board candidate contested the accuracy of the officer’s claim and continued to ask about her options as the officer asked her to produce her license. Omeish said the officer pulled out pepper spray, holding it to her face, and ordered her out of the car.
In a police report, the officer said he asked for Omeish’s license and explained multiple times why he stopped her. He then told her she could provide her license or step out of the car, to which she replied, “I don’t want to step out,” according to the report.
The officer said he opened the driver-side door, telling Omeish multiple times she could get out of the car or he would remove her. According to the police officer’s account, Omeish “braced her left foot against the door frame to prevent removal. . . . She tried to get out of my grip by using her right hand to grab her left hand and pull.”
“She kept saying, ‘I’ll give you my license,’ while resisting and not obeying commands,” the report states.
Omeish disputed the officer’s account and said she never tried to pull her hand away.
She said she told the officer she would give him her license and was pepper-sprayed shortly after.
The school board candidate recorded part of the encounter on her cellphone and allowed a Post reporter to view it. In the video, she repeatedly tells the officer she would provide her license, while the officer demands she step out of the car.
In the recording, the 24-year-old insists she did not do anything and is heard sobbing after being pepper-sprayed.
The officer said he displayed his pepper spray and, after Omeish continued to pull away, deployed it for one or two seconds, aiming “where the scarf met her forehead to prevent spraying directly into her eyes,” the report read.
Omeish said she never explicitly refused to provide her license.
“What they took as refusal to give my license was, essentially, me delaying it by asking questions,” she said.
Omeish said she was dragged out of her car and hit her head. Outside the car, she shouted: “A cop is being brutal! Help me!”
Three more officers arrived, Omeish said, and “they all kind of wrangle me and grab me and push me against the car.”
Muhammad Elsayed, Omeish’s attorney, said in a statement the encounter was “unfortunate and escalated beyond what should have happened.”
At the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, Omeish said, she was forced to remove her headscarf when she was photographed, despite objecting to the request. One law enforcement officer, she recalled, brought a small blanket and tried to shield her while the photo was taken. Court records reviewed by The Post show Omeish was photographed without a headscarf.
“I was sobbing at that point,” recalled Omeish, who was released the night of her arrest. “This is actually my dignity. This is such a big deal.”
A spokeswoman with the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the detention center, said deputies followed procedures when photographing Omeish.
Department policy states that a person who wears a religious head covering should be pictured with and without the covering in booking photos. Those present should be the same gender as the person who was arrested, and the suspect should be “kept out of view of others as much as possible.”
The only person who saw Omeish as she was being photographed was the female deputy who took the photos, according to the sheriff’s office.
Omeish disputed that account, saying she was photographed in view of several people, including men.
Her headscarf was returned but not the pins used to fasten it.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group, wrote a letter to the Fairfax County police chief, Col. Edwin C. Roessler Jr., and Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid, accusing Fairfax law enforcement of using unreasonable force and denying Omeish’s right to wear a hijab while detained.
“These actions violated Ms. Omeish’s constitutional rights,” the letter said. “Ms. Omeish clearly and explicitly requested that officers allow her to adhere to her faith and wear her hijab. Despite her requests, officers forced Ms. Omeish to remove her hijab.”
The sheriff’s office acknowledged it received the complaint from the Muslim civil rights group and has launched an inquiry, according to an email the sheriff’s office sent to CAIR.
Two days later, Omeish was diagnosed with a concussion and had bruises and scrapes on her left wrist and hand and her right leg, according to records from a health-care center that she provided.
She also spoke a week later to a mental health therapist who determined that she had symptoms of acute stress disorder stemming from the police encounter. Omeish experienced flashbacks, medical records show.
Omeish was ordered to pay $200 in fines, records show.
Omeish, a graduate of Fairfax County Public Schools and Yale University, has championed equity and mental health initiatives during her campaign for the school board. She has been endorsed by the Fairfax County Democratic Committee.
The candidate said she plans to pursue conversations with Fairfax police about implementing sensitivity training to protect vulnerable students.
“If it was someone else, this just wouldn’t have happened. And I was shocked that this was happening in Fairfax County,” she said. “It’s sobered me to some of the realities here.”
Eddy Palanzo and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.