RICHMOND — A Virginia State Police investigation into the bloody arrest of a black University of Virginia student by white Alcoholic Beverage Control officers revealed new details but did not offer a tidy conclusion to the controversial encounter.
The report released Tuesday at the urging of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) centered on the March arrest of then-U-Va. junior Martese Johnson, who was 20 when he suffered a head wound that required 10 stitches in an altercation with Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) officers.
The police investigation details conflicting reports from more than two dozen witnesses. Some said Johnson was slammed into the ground by the officers; others said he tripped and fell. The 119-page report did not resolve how Johnson was injured after he was denied entry to a bar during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Charlottesville.
The report details that ABC officers decided to focus on the Trinity Irish Pub for a planned operation around the holiday to target underage drinking because the establishment had been a trouble spot in the past for the licensing and enforcement agency. It said officers charged 11 people over the course of the three-day operation.
When Johnson walked to Trinity that night he unwittingly became the central figure in an incident that ignited demonstrations on campus about race and police use of force. Videos capturing the arrest showed Johnson in shackles with blood running down his face. The investigation described the accounts of Johnson’s friends who were with him that night, the police officers who took part in the arrest and passersby who watched the incident unfold.
ABC ultimately concluded that the officers acted appropriately during the arrest and reinstated them after their regular duties were temporarily suspended.
In June, Charlottesville prosecutor Warner “Dave” Chapman decided to drop charges against Johnson.
“It would just be wrong to prosecute this guy,” Chapman said in June. “He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was innocent.”
Johnson’s attorney, Daniel P. Watkins, said his client is still considering filing a lawsuit against the ABC officers.
“The broader question still stands: How much force should police be permitted to use when investigating regulatory offenses?” Watkins said in a statement. “Our position has remained the same throughout: The Virginia ABC officers were not justified in their treatment of Mr. Johnson.”
In a statement Tuesday, McAuliffe said Johnson’s arrest led to policy reforms that will strengthen the work of ABC police officers and protect citizens in the future.
“The facts presented in this thorough report support the Virginia ABC’s decision to reinstate these agents,” McAuliffe said in a statement, noting that going forward “we are doing everything we can to keep Virginians safe with the utmost professionalism and respect.”
Johnson, 21, is now a senior at U-Va., studying media studies and Italian. The son of a single mother, Johnson grew up on Chicago’s South Side and told The Washington Post that he has encountered blatant racism with startling frequency while at U-Va.
The report noted that Johnson shouted obscenities at ABC officers and called them “racist” for targeting him. He said the arrest inspired him to work on advocating for minorities who experience injustice.
“I think that race was definitely a factor in this situation, but I don’t believe it was the only factor,” Johnson told The Post in June. “I think that part of what happened with me can’t be blamed on the officers. It has to be blamed on society as a whole.”
McAuliffe ordered state police to investigate shortly after Johnson’s arrest, which fed a national debate over police relations with minorities and led to campus protests. The incident also renewed concerns about the law-enforcement arm of ABC, which was sued after a 2013 incident in which its plainclothes agents confronted a 20-year-old white sorority member in the parking lot of a Charlottesville supermarket. Six agents closed in on the student, and one pulled out a gun. The agents suspected that she was carrying beer, but the student actually had a case of sparkling water.
The student sued and received a settlement of more than $200,000.