CHARLOTTESVILLE — The violent arrest of a University of Virginia student sparked new scrutiny of Virginia’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control on Thursday as university officials and Richmond lawmakers questioned the tactics and approach of the agency’s law enforcement officers.
The arrest put Charlottesville at the center of a national debate over white police officers’ treatment of black youths, and it brought long-simmering racial tensions to the surface at a school steeped in Southern tradition.
The bloody incident also spurred student protests and what Virginia State Police said would be a “comprehensive investigation” into the arrest, both an administrative review at Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s request and a criminal investigation at the behest of local prosecutors.
“Getting arrested shouldn’t involve getting stitches,” U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said in an interview with The Washington Post. Sullivan met with the student Thursday, and she wrote in a letter to alumni that “members of our community should feel safe from the threat of bodily harm and other forms of violence.”
White ABC officers arrested the black student, junior Martese Johnson, 20, after he was denied entry to the Trinity Irish Pub early Wednesday near the end of St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Johnson suffered head injuries that left bloody streaks down his face, images that spread quickly on social media, inspiring outrage around the country.
“I’m shocked that my face was slammed into the brick pavement just across the street from where I attend school,” Johnson said through his attorney at a news conference here late Thursday. Johnson stood next to his attorney, cuts visible on the student’s head. “As the officers held me down, one thought raced through my mind: ‘How could this happen?’ ”
Student cellphone videos from the scene show Johnson lying on the ground with three officers on top of him, but they do not show what happened in the moments before the arrest or how the student was injured.
Johnson’s attorney, Daniel P. Watkins, said the student never offered fake identification to enter the pub. Instead, the student gave a valid Illinois state ID. When an employee at the bar asked Johnson for his Zip code, Johnson gave the Zip code for his mother’s current address, which differed from the Zip code on the identification card, which was issued four years ago, Watkins said.
Watkins said that after Johnson was turned away from the bar, Virginia ABC officers then questioned Johnson about possessing false identification, a conversation that led to the student “being thrown to the ground . . . his face and skull bleeding and needing surgery.”
Johnson is an elected representative to the school’s prestigious Honor Committee, which upholds U-Va.’s honor code. He was raised by a single mother on the South Side of Chicago and is attending U-Va. on a full scholarship.
Police charged Johnson with misdemeanor profane swearing and/or public intoxication and obstruction of justice without force; Watkins said he will fight to clear Johnson’s name with “the utmost vigor.”
“Martese Johnson is an upstanding young man with a bright future,” Watkins said.
Around the country, Johnson’s arrest joined Ferguson, Mo., and #BlackLivesMatter as a topic in conversations about fighting back against police brutality. On campus, the arrest triggered discussion about the long history of racism at the university and across Virginia.
Jalen Ross, a U-Va. senior who describes himself as biracial, said there are plenty of minority students on campus who are happy. “I’m one of them,” said Ross, U-Va’s student council president. But he said he can understand those who feel less comfortable at a university that was founded by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, and built with slave labor. “There’s a lot of history to wrangle with,” Ross said. “For minority students, that's not a good history.”
Dante DeVito, 24, said he worked for two years as a bouncer at Trinity, the bar where Johnson was arrested, before graduating from U-Va. last year. DeVito said he was instructed to examine black students and their identification more closely than other students. And ABC agents were often waiting to question students who were turned away. “They would wait for us to reject somebody, and then they would scrutinize the person we rejected,” DeVito said.
Ryan Rooney, who said he is the owner of Trinity, said his business had nothing to do with Wednesday’s incident.
“We were just the address where it happened in front of,” Rooney said. “We had nothing to do with the ABC agents actions.”
He confirmed that DeVito was a former Trinity employee. Rooney said his business does not have a policy to discriminate against black patrons who attempt to enter the bar. “That is ridiculous and totally false,” he said.
Dante Crawford, a longtime Trinity staffer, said that as a black man he did not feel discriminated against at the bar: “[I] would never work there if prejudice was prevalent.”
Unlike other recent cases involving white law enforcement agents and young black men, the officers in this case were not municipal police officers. Nor were they university officers.
They were employees of the Virginia ABC, three of the 130 special agents who have full police powers to enforce liquor laws in the state’s bars and restaurants and prevent underage drinking.
“That’s not even regular police, that’s ABC,” a man can be heard saying on a video of Johnson’s arrest, which occurred on the sidewalk near a strip of restaurants and bars adjacent to campus called “The Corner.”
ABC officials have said that Johnson was charged with the two misdemeanors but declined to detail why he was physically taken to the ground; in Virginia, it is against the law for people younger than 21 to have alcohol in their system. ABC spokeswoman Rebecca Gettings said the agency will have nothing more to say about the incident while the state police investigation is underway.
Gettings didn’t immediately provide answers to questions about how many agents the ABC has on the ground in Charlottesville — where it has a regional office — and how many arrests they have made monthly in the city during the past two years. ABC agents made 1,670 arrests statewide in the most recent fiscal year.
The ABC is a leading revenue generator for the state government and is probably best known for operating all of Virginia’s liquor stores. It is less widely known that the law enforcement division has worked to address underage drinking on the state’s college campuses, including at U-Va., where agents launched an intensive effort in 2013.
That increased enforcement effort drew criticism in April 2013 after plainclothes Virginia ABC officers confronted a 20-year-old white student in the parking lot of a Harris Teeter in Charlottesville. Six agents closed in on the student, and one pulled a gun. But instead of carrying a case of beer, as the agents suspected, the student had bottles of LaCroix sparkling water.
The student, Elizabeth Daly, later sued the Virginia ABC and received more than $200,000 in a settlement.
ABC officials then worked to keep a low profile in Charlottesville. But Sullivan said that last fall she asked McAuliffe (D) to bring ABC agents back to the city as a safety measure after the disappearance of sophomore Hannah Graham, who had been drinking with friends the night she vanished. Graham was later found slain.
Sullivan said she had hoped ABC agents would target bars serving underage drinkers — a stronger deterrent, she said, than arresting drunk students. “The help I wanted from ABC was with establishments, not with going after individual students,” she said.
Drinking is a big part of campus culture at U-Va., as it is on college campuses around the country, and alcohol has played a prominent role in recent high-profile cases at the school. In addition to Graham’s disappearance, there was the 2010 slaying of lacrosse player Yeardley Love by her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely V.
But state lawmakers also said they think the agency is too focused on arresting underage drinkers — at the expense of bigger problems.
“Most of us who are involved with the ABC really wish the ABC would get back to enforcing regulatory alcohol law and get away from hanging outside of grocery stores busting 20-year-olds for buying beer,” said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax).
Albo, who has long served on a House subcommittee that oversees the ABC, said he would like to see ABC officers focus on issues that they alone are empowered to handle: auditing restaurants’ books to see whether they are observing a law that requires a certain share of their sales to be food.
Under Virginia law, establishments that sell beer and wine must sell a minimum of $2,000 in food a month. Those serving mixed drinks must make 45 percent of their sales in food. Albo said restaurateurs who observe the law are “pretty angry” that some establishments get away with flouting it.
House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) agreed, calling the ABC officers’ actions this week a “shocking” overreaction to underage drinking. “The ABC folks should be inside the restaurant and enforcing the law related to serving underage people instead of outside trying to deal with a problem that is more appropriately dealt with by the local police,” Toscano said.
Pointing to Daly’s arrest in 2013, Toscano said problems with the ABC extend beyond race. But he said he was disturbed by the images of a bloodied Johnson being held down by white officers. “It raises all kinds of concerns,” he said.
Brown reported from Washington, Vozzella from Richmond. T. Rees Shapiro in Newport News and Rachel Weiner in Washington contributed to this report.