Alexandria will pay $100,000 to a black man stopped by a white police officer who handcuffed him and falsely accused him of carrying drugs.
The settlement ends an unusual case in which the officer involved was recommended for termination for racial bias under one police chief — the aggrieved man’s brother — only to see the decision reversed by a new one.
The decision to terminate was upheld twice. Officer Brandon Smith filed his own lawsuit against the city, only to see his firing undone after Earl Cook Jr. retired and was replaced by Michael L. Brown.
“I’m hoping for black, white whatever, [to] uphold the law,” said the man who was stopped, 60-year-old Harold Cook. “We do have rights.”
Under the settlement, reached Tuesday night at a City Council meeting, Smith and the city admit no wrongdoing, and Cook agreed to drop a federal lawsuit against them.
The incident unfolded on July 16, 2015, when Cook left his sick fiancee at their Taylor Run apartment and went out to do laundry. He noticed Smith pull up in an unmarked cruiser.
Cook put a cigarette in his pocket and turned toward his truck — and away from Smith’s car.
Smith approached and accused Cook of holding drugs, according to court filings. He demanded to see what was in the man’s pockets. Cook produced the cigarette and denied having any drugs. Smith then handcuffed Cook, searched his pockets and took his driver’s license to run for any outstanding warrants.
Cook protested, saying he was no criminal. In fact, he said, his brother was Earl Cook Jr., then the chief of police.
Smith didn’t believe him, according to court papers, and asked whether Cook and the chief had different mothers. But he released Cook from the handcuffs and let him go.
Cook, still stewing over the interaction that night, called his brother, who encouraged him to call Smith’s supervisor. He did. After an internal investigation, from which Earl Cook recused himself, Smith was fired.
“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 of this decision in a statement earlier this year.
Both sides maintain that they would have won had the lawsuit gone to trial.
“I am glad that the city did the right thing by Harold Cook, and did so without charging Alexandria taxpayers the costs of defending the indefensible,” said Cook’s attorney, Victor Glasberg.
Craig Fifer, a spokesman for Alexandria’s government, said that “although we believe the City would have prevailed in court, it is prudent to avoid the prospect of a costly trial and appeals.”
Smith declined to comment Wednesday. Will Oakley, Smith’s union representative in the police department, said that in rehiring the officer, the police department “fully exonerated” him.
Cook’s fiancee, who was battling cancer at the time of the stop, recently died. He has spent the past several years caring for her, and he said the fact that she witnessed his humiliation made him particularly upset.
Now, he said, he will use some of the funds from the settlement to pay medical bills while he figures out what to do next.
“I pretty much got to start all over,” Cook said.
But he said his motivation was political, not financial. While Alexandria is known as a liberal city, he said he and other black men still have a sometimes fraught relationship with police.
“Alexandria’s not exempt,” Cook said. “There are some good cops, policemen, don’t get me wrong. But this time this guy deserved worse.”