A black man turns from a police officer and puts a cigarette in his pocket. The officer stops him, handcuffs him, questions him about illegal drugs and outstanding warrants.
It’s the kind of interaction that happens every day. But in Alexandria, Va., two years ago, the black man Officer Brandon Smith stopped was so insulted that he called his brother, Earl L. Cook, who happened to be the chief of police.
Earl Cook told his brother that he could file a complaint, and Smith, who is white, ultimately was fired for a stop deemed illegal and racially biased. But a new chief has now rehired him, and supporters say it was Smith who was mistreated.
The dispute may not be over yet. The man who was stopped, Harold Cook, is consulting with an attorney about taking further action.
The case sheds light on the way cities nationwide are grappling with disputes over how often — and why — black men are detained by police. Last year, the president of the largest police management organization apologized for historical mistreatment of minorities by officers, and President Barack Obama had pushed for better training to confront racial bias in police forces.
President Trump, expressing concern that police were not getting support, has pushed back against what he describes as “unfair defamation and vilification.”
Earl Cook says there needs to be accountability for even small instances of discrimination to build trust and avoid bigger confrontations.
“Investigative stops is a hot-button item, has been for a long, long time. And unfortunately, we haven’t been immune in the police department from some stops that are ill advised,” said Cook, who retired last year. “If you turn a blind eye, then you’re not only emboldening that person who transgressed but you’re also, I think, lessening the justice for the victim.”
Smith did not respond to requests for comment. But the police union and others in city government say that he was unjustly fired over what was, at most, a minor mistake. Smith himself argued in court that nepotism was a factor.
Smith “is a proactive officer who knows the law and applies it fairly and accurately,” said Will Oakley, Smith’s union representative in the department. “You see in other cities the racial issues, the heavy-handed policing — you don’t see that here. The rank-and-file officers aren’t going to tolerate racial bias, the union wouldn’t support anybody with racial bias.”
Although such personnel disputes are usually secret, the details of the complaint against Smith were made public when he filed a lawsuit fighting his termination.
The encounter began as Harold Cook, 59, was going to do laundry near his Taylor Run home on July 16, 2015, and saw Smith pull up in an unmarked police cruiser. He says he paid the officer no mind. He was coming off a long day with his fiancee, who was undergoing cancer treatment. Cook had two bottles of detergent in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other; he turned around and put the cigarette in his pocket to fish out the keys to his truck. When Smith repeatedly yelled “Stop!” Cook recalled assuming that the officer was calling to someone else.
But Smith told investigators he thought Cook was ignoring a demand from an officer and hiding something in his pocket.
It “looked like a cigarette,” Smith said in interviews with investigators, but it could have been a “joint” or a “dipper,” slang for a cigarette soaked in PCP.
According to both men’s accounts, Smith approached Cook, pulled the hand holding the cigarette out of his pocket and handcuffed him. Cook said Smith then pulled out his wallet and ran his license plate for outstanding warrants.
Cook recalled that Smith continued to suggest that the cigarette contained illegal drugs. He says he protested, saying he had a sick fiancee at home. By the way, he added, his brother was the city’s police chief.
Smith thought Cook was probably lying. He asked whether he and the chief shared a mother, a question Cook found offensive. According to court documents, Smith later said that he thought it would be less likely that two black people would share a father.
But Smith soon decided not to continue the arrest; he uncuffed Cook and left.
Cook said he called the station but was unable to get any information about filing a complaint. That night, he called his brother.
“It was on my mind so much,” Cook recalled. “Why would you do this? I wanted an apology, or something.”
Chief Cook told his brother to contact Smith’s supervisor, which he did. The chief recused himself from the investigation. Smith was fired. Despite a hearing at which 14 members of the police department and seven city prosecutors testified on his behalf, Smith’s termination was upheld twice.
“My review leads me to think that the articulation for the stop was contrived and therefore I am left to reason that the subject’s race was the basis for the stop,” Deputy Chief David Huchler wrote, according to court filings. Huchler said Cook’s turning around was not “furtive.”
To the charge of nepotism, an arbiter from city government noted that both men had connections to officials. Smith’s wife is a prosecutor for the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney. Huchler denied that Earl Cook had any influence on the investigation.
Smith’s final chance to keep his job — a hearing before a three-person panel — was held up over a dispute with city officials over the panel’s leader. Smith ultimately filed the civil lawsuit, saying that his rights were violated.
That case was still unresolved in March when new Police Chief Michael L. Brown decided that Smith should be rehired. He exonerated Smith of all charges.
“Our department does not pursue action against the subject of any criminal, civil, or administrative complaint, including Police personnel, unless the evidence and the law support the complaint,” Brown said in a statement.
Several supporters were happy to see Smith vindicated.
“He made a mistake,” said Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, who considered hiring Smith after he was fired by the police department, referring to Smith’s question about Cook’s mother. “It doesn’t make him a racist, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should fire him for it. That’s a training issue; it’s not a fireable offense, and it doesn’t add up to biased policing.”
Just a month before his dismissal, according to police records, Smith was commended for his proactiveness — and his knowledge of the Constitution.
Blaine Corle, who retired from the department in 2014 as deputy chief, said that under Earl Cook the department was too quick to dole out discipline. “When you talk about taking away someone’s livelihood, you have to be sure that the facts support the action and . . . that the punishment fits the crime — and that’s what I found to be lacking in a number of cases,” Corle said.
But several defense attorneys in Alexandria argue that Smith’s transgressions go deeper than one unnecessary stop or awkward query and that he has crossed legal lines when making searches or arrests in the past.
“Smith . . . generally showed a blatant disregard for the values and rights he says he has sworn to uphold,” said Sandra Freeman, a former public defender now working in North Dakota.
Mentioned in the court papers defending Smith’s dismissal were arrests he had made charging women with prostitution at a local Days Inn while not assigned to do so. Smith was suspended for insubordination.
To keep him on as an officer after the Cook stop and his previous disciplinary record, Huchler concluded in his report, would be “negligent.”
Harold Cook is considering his own lawsuit against Smith and possibly the city. He has his brother’s support.
“I’ll never not have 100 percent loyalty to the Alexandria Police Department,” Earl Cook said. “The only thing that gives me any comfort in this uncomfortable situation is that you have to do the right thing. And I don’t think there’s any betrayal in doing the right thing.”