La Monta Gladney, 36, survived, and officer Tyler Timberlake was charged with three counts of misdemeanor assault and battery less than 36 hours after the incident in Mount Vernon. The encounter has prompted activists and elected officials alike to renew long-simmering concerns about the policing of black and brown people in the D.C. area’s largest jurisdiction.
The Fairfax County police do not have the long and troubled history with minority communities that the Minneapolis department has, but some have pointed to statistics showing wide racial disparities in use of force and arrests as potential signs of deeper problems.
In 2018, African Americans made up roughly 10 percent of the county’s population but constituted 44 percent of the cases in which officers deployed force, according to department statistics. In contrast, whites made up 61 percent of the county’s population but were involved in only 33 percent of such cases.
The number of use-of-force cases against African Americans has jumped 25 percent since 2016, according to the figures. Department officials are readying 2019 numbers, which should be released next week.
The group ACLU People Power Fairfax also analyzed 2018 arrests this month, concluding the percentages of Latinos and blacks charged are roughly two and three times their share of the population in the county, respectively.
Policing experts caution that such figures are not necessarily proof of bias — other factors could be at work that influence the numbers — but the president of the county’s NAACP chapter said he thinks they point to racial profiling and other issues.
Sean Perryman praised Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. and Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve T. Descano for swiftly bringing charges against Timberlake, but he was concerned that the officer felt empowered to use such aggressive force in the current moment.
“In light of what’s going on across the nation and in Fairfax in terms of protest and increasing dialogue about police brutality, it makes me wonder what was going on on a daily basis before that this officer felt he could act like this in this climate,” Perryman said.
Timberlake’s arrest also comes after an effort to overhaul the force following the fatal shooting of an unarmed Springfield man by an officer in 2013. The department implemented nearly 200 recommendations by a panel of experts that included efforts to restrain the use of force, increase transparency, divert the mentally ill from jail, establish civilian oversight and outfit officers with body cameras.
Perryman and other advocates said the most recent incident left them questioning whether enough has changed. ACLU People Power Fairfax lead advocate Diane E. Burkley Alejandro said she thinks the department’s leadership is good but feels reform efforts are in the past.
“ ‘We are really good. We’ve made a lot of positive changes,’ ” Alejandro said of the attitude. “The implication being that this is just aberration. I see denial of a problem existing.”
Roessler, the chief, said in a statement the department is committed to reform and acknowledged the racial disparities in use of force, saying it was something the department was examining. Roessler called Timberlake’s actions “horrible” at a previous news conference.
“Our strategy for making Fairfax a safer and stronger county has been predicated on strong relationships with the communities we serve and creating a more transparent and accountable police department,” Roessler said. “As we have done in years past, we are attempting to present more robust use-of-force data and look specifically at racial disparities that may exist.”
In January, the county contracted with a University of Texas at San Antonio researcher to examine whether the racial disparities in use of force by the Fairfax County police are the result of bias or other factors. The study is slated to be released in early 2021.
The county’s Independent Police Auditor previously examined the same issue based on 2015 data. The auditor found there was no discernible difference in the amount of force used against African Americans or whites engaged in similar conduct, but some differences in the type of force used against people of different races. The auditor could not rule out that bias played a role in the disparities in use of force.
The most recent incident occurred on a Friday, when officers were called to Fordson Road for a report of a man saying he needed oxygen, Roessler said at a recent news conference. Gladney was having an “episode,” Roessler said.
Body-camera video shows Gladney pacing in circles in the middle of the residential street and mumbling erratically, as the first officer who arrived on scene and a paramedic attempt to coax him into an ambulance.
Eventually, Timberlake shows up and orders Gladney to get on the ground, before deploying his Taser seconds later. Gladney flops on his back, and Timberlake orders him to roll over, before putting a knee on his back and a knee on his neck. Timberlake hits Gladney in the head with the Taser and deploys it again at least one more time.
Eventually, officers handcuff Gladney as he yells: “I can’t breathe!”
“It was a traumatizing experience,” Gladney said in an interview, saying he thought of George Floyd as it went down.
Gladney said he suffered injuries to his neck, back, face and arm during the encounter and was treated at a hospital. Gladney declined to discuss the events that led up to the video or why he appeared disoriented.
On Thursday, Descano dropped resisting arrest and drunk-in-public charges against Gladney, citing a lack of evidence.
During a hearing in Fairfax County General District Court last week, an attorney for Timberlake said the officer had mistaken Gladney for someone else who had a criminal record. Timberlake can be heard on the body-camera video calling Gladney, “Anthony.” Attorneys for Timberlake declined to give an interview about the case.
Robert Bryan, an attorney for Gladney, rejected the defense’s argument as irrelevant.
“Whether it was my client, or whomever officer Timberlake thought he was engaging, no one deserves to be treated in such a cruel manner,” Bryan said.
The Fairfax County Police Department was strongly criticized for its lack of transparency after the police shooting of John Geer in 2013, which prompted the reform efforts. But Perryman and Alejandro said the department is still opaque about its policing of minorities. They want to see data about the race of those arrested, receiving citations and the subject of traffic stops among other data points.
They also pointed out body cameras were key to understanding what happened to Gladney but criticized the county for delaying funding in recent months because of budget issues created by the coronavirus pandemic.
The county’s board of supervisors attempted to remedy that issue Tuesday by ordering staff to find funding to purchase 338 cameras by next summer to supplement the 416 already in use. The county ultimately wants to deploy 1,210 such cameras.
Both advocates also said the county’s Police Civilian Review Panel, created in the wake of Geer’s shooting, is too weak to properly oversee the department. The panel is supposed to investigate allegations of abuse and serious misconduct by officers but must rely on the department’s internal investigators, they said.
The county’s NAACP chapter called on the police department to respond to those issues and others in response to Gladney’s case.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff C. McKay tried to quell any bubbling community tensions with police, saying that the June 5 incident isn’t reflective of the attitude that most county police officers have. The board condemned Timberlake’s conduct at a Tuesday meeting.
“The actions of one officer, two officers, three officers, certainly is not indicative of the thousand-plus people in our police department,” McKay (D) said at the meeting.
But Supervisor Rodney L. Lusk (D-Lee) said residents in the mostly African American Gum Springs portion of the county — where the incident occurred — have complained of “targeting” and “profiling.”
During a community meeting Monday night, residents “articulated that we need to end the excessive use of force by our officers,” Lusk told his board colleagues. “They discussed the need for change in the culture of the police department.”
Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.