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Officers grabbed a Black librarian by her hair and tore her shoulder during traffic stop, lawsuit alleges: ‘That’s good police work, baby’

Body-camera footage from 2019 shows officers in Salisbury, N.C., pulling Stephanie Bottom out of her car and throwing her to the ground during a traffic stop. (Video: The Washington Post)

Stephanie Bottom was terror-stricken in the driver’s seat of her SUV, trying not to move as three officers in Salisbury, N.C., held her at gunpoint during a traffic stop for speeding in May 2019.

Bottom, an Atlanta librarian and grandmother of five, was driving to North Carolina for a relative’s funeral when police stopped her vehicle after it was going 10 mph over the speed limit, according to a federal lawsuit she filed Wednesday. Bottom, who did not immediately realize police wanted her to stop, was looking for a safe place to pull over when police used spike strips to stop her SUV.

Before Bottom, 68, could get an answer as to why the officers had their guns pointed at her head, police grabbed the librarian by her arm and hair and threw her from her car to the ground, body-camera footage shows.

Police then allegedly tore Bottom’s rotator cuff as they detained her, shrieking, facedown on the pavement of the interstate. After she cried for police to get her medical attention — “I am hurting really bad” — one of the officers on the scene congratulated his law enforcement colleagues on a job well done, according to the lawsuit.

“That’s good police work, baby,” he said, according to body-cam footage.

Bottom, who is Black, is suing three officers, the sheriff of Rowan County, N.C., and the city of Salisbury, accusing them of using excessive force and violating her Fourth Amendment rights during a traffic stop that seriously injured her. The lawsuit obtained by The Washington Post, which was filed in the Middle District of North Carolina, accuses Salisbury officers Devin Barkalow and Adam Bouk and Rowan County Sheriff’s deputy Mark Benfield of hurting the librarian so badly that she was forced to miss eight months of work. The allegations were first reported by the Charlotte Observer.

Neither the Salisbury Police Department nor the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday. Linda McElroy, a spokeswoman for the city of Salisbury, wrote in an email to the Observer that “the Salisbury Police always strives for positive interactions with our residents and visitors, including in cases where we may suspect criminal activity.”

Efforts to reach the officers and Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten were unsuccessful. According to the Observer, Barkalow said he no longer works for the Salisbury Police Department. The lawsuit alleges the officers were not disciplined for their actions.

“We don’t have any information that they were sanctioned in any way,” said Scott Holmes, an attorney representing Bottom and a professor at North Carolina Central University’s School of Law Civil Litigation Clinic.

The lawsuit comes as questions surrounding excessive and deadly force by police against Black people remain front and center this week after Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis and 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was fatally shot during an altercation in Columbus, Ohio. Chauvin’s conviction on Tuesday has renewed the push from Democrats for the Senate to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a measure that could reshape law enforcement training in the United States.

Nonfatal encounters have also been thrust back into the national spotlight following a lawsuit brought this month by Lt. Caron Nazario. The Black Army officer accused police officers in Windsor, Va., of holding him at gunpoint and pepper-spraying and assaulting him during a traffic stop in December. One of the officers was dismissed, and the Virginia attorney general launched a civil rights probe.

A Black Army officer held at gunpoint during traffic stop was afraid to get out of his car. ‘You should be,’ police said.

Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino, is suing two Virginia police officers who he claims violated his constitutional rights at a December 2020 traffic stop. (Video: The Washington Post)

Bottom said she was driving from her home in Fulton County, Ga., to Raleigh for her great aunt’s funeral on May 30, 2019, when she noticed a police car trying to pull her over for going 80 mph in a 70 mph zone. It was around 8 p.m., and Bottom, who said that initially she didn’t notice the lights because she was listening to the music of Santana and Prince at a loud volume, was trying to find a safe area to pull over. Her fear of police also played a role in finding a safe spot to stop on Interstate 85, Bottom told The Post.

“There’s been a lot of police brutality, and I was terrified,” she said.

Body-cam footage obtained by The Post shows Barkalow uttering expletives about Bottom during a pursuit the officer described as an “exciting chase” that had him “at the edge of my seat.” Officers identified her as an “older Black female,” according to the lawsuit.

When Bottom tried to pull over, another police officer had already sped up ahead of her Toyota Sequoia and placed spike strips on the road, causing Bottom’s SUV to stop immediately, according to the lawsuit.

Moments later, Barkalow, Benfield and Bouk had their guns drawn and screamed for Bottom to get out of her car, the lawsuit alleges. In body-cam footage of the chaotic scene sirens are so ear-piercingly loud that one section of the footage is difficult to make out. But Bottom said it was clear the situation had escalated.

“If I would have made any sudden move, they might have shot me,” Bottom told The Post. “I might not be here today.”

Barkalow and Benfield then grabbed Bottom by her arm and went for her dreadlocks, pulling her from the SUV onto the ground, according to the lawsuit. As the three officers were restraining her with their knees on her back, Bottom asked what had prompted the force.

“I was just driving!” she pleaded to the officers while on the ground, according to the video. “What have I done wrong?” Body-cam video shows police not responding to her questions.

Bottom was crying as she told police that her shoulder, which she said had been injured in a past car accident, was in serious pain. It was around this time that Barkalow “forced Plaintiff’s left arm behind her to the point where Plaintiff’s wrist was near her neck,” said Bottom’s attorneys. The force resulted in a “pop” sound that signaled she had torn her rotator cuff, the lawsuit alleges.

At one point in the body-cam video, an officer finally replied to her questions with a question of his own.

“Well, honey, you had several miles to stop, why didn’t you stop?” he asked. “I don’t understand how they do it in Georgia, but that’s not how it’s done here.”

During the course of the detainment, the body-cam footage shows Bottom pleading for medical attention while officers condemn her for speeding.

“You put a lot of people in danger tonight, ma’am,” an officer said, according to video.

As Bottom continued to scream in pain, Bouk is heard on his body camera congratulating the officers on their “good police work.” According to the lawsuit, Barkalow went on to brag to his colleagues about grabbing a “handful of dreads,” and said “at that point, she deserved it.”

Bottom later pleaded guilty to failing to heed blue lights, but the charges for speeding and resisting arrest were dismissed in court.

A librarian with the Fulton County Library System for 14 years, Bottom said she was forced to miss eight months of work while recovering from her injuries. The lawsuit is seeking damages for lost wages.

Nearly two years since the traffic stop, Bottom said she still can only partially lift her left arm. Saying she felt “scarred for life,” she emphasized that she hoped the police faced some sort of discipline for the day she felt her life was in danger.

“I want these officers to be accountable so that they don’t do this to anyone else,” she said. “I want for them to understand this was not a joke, not a game, not something for them to laugh or brag about.”

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