Johnson’s name quickly became a hashtag online, linked to #BlackLivesMatter, Ferguson and the national debate over racism and police.
But the arresting officials in this case were not part of the university or local police departments. They were employees of the Virginia ABC, three of the more than 100 special agents who have full police powers to prevent underage drinking and enforce liquor laws in the state’s bars and restaurants.
“That’s not even regular police, that’s ABC,” a man can be heard saying on a video of the incident, which occurred on the sidewalk near a strip of restaurants and bars adjacent to campus called The Corner. ABC officials have said that Johnson was charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice but declined to detail why he was physically taken to the ground.
According to court records, Johnson was arrested after officers found him “very agitated and belligerent,” but an officer noted that he has “no previous criminal history.”
“The uniformed ABC Agents observed and approached the individual after he was refused entry to a licensed establishment. A determination was made by the agents to further detain the individual based on their observations and further questioning,” the Virginia ABC said in a statement. “In the course of an arrest being made, the arrested individual sustained injuries. The individual received treatment for his injuries at a local hospital and was released.”
The Virginia State Police announced Thursday that it is conducting a “comprehensive investigation” into the arrest, both an administrative review at the Governor’s request and a criminal investigation at the behest of local prosecutors.
“Both elements of this investigation will take time to conduct and complete,” said Colonel W. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the state police. “We owe it to both Mr. Johnson and the Virginia ABC to be painstakingly thorough in determining the facts of the situation through interviews, evidence collection and analysis, and investigative procedure. We appreciate the public’s patience as we move through the investigative process in the coming weeks.”
The arrest drew strong condemnation from students and faculty, and state leaders in Richmond said they had concerns about what had happened but cautioned that there are still unknown details about the altercation. Hundreds of students rallied Wednesday night in protest, and Johnson, who has not responded to requests for comment, appeared briefly at the rally.
“I beg for you guys to please respect everyone here,” the Associated Press reported that Johnson said. “We really are one community.”
Johnson is an elected representative to the school’s prestigious Honor Committee, where he serves as vice chair for community relations, according to the U-Va. Web site. The Honor Committee helps uphold the school’s honor code, which is at the heart of the founding principles of integrity and student self-governance.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office issued a statement Wednesday afternoon in which he said he was calling for an investigation into the arrest. ABC officials said they would cooperate with that investigation. The officers involved in the incident are restricted to administrative duties while the investigation is underway.
Virginia ABC is a leading revenue generator for the state government and is probably best known for operating all of Virginia’s liquor stores. It is less widely known that the law enforcement division has worked to address underage drinking on the state’s college campuses, including at U-Va., where agents launched an intensive effort in 2013.
Officials with Virginia ABC didn’t immediately provide answers to questions about how many agents they have on the ground in Charlottesville and how many arrests they have made monthly in Charlottesville since launching their more intensive operation there in 2013. Charlottesville is one of nine locations around Virginia that has an ABC regional office.
That increased enforcement effort drew criticism in April 2013 after plainclothes Virginia ABC officers confronted a 20-year-old student in the parking lot of a Harris Teeter in Charlottesville. Six agents closed in on the student and one pulled a gun. But instead of carrying a case of beer, as the agents suspected, the student had bottles of LaCroix sparkling water.
The student, Elizabeth Daly, later sued Virginia ABC and received more than $200,000 in a settlement.
Legislators in Richmond said they are concerned about the arrest and want to take a hard look at ABC’s actions.
“This is the second time that they’re in the spotlight” over an arrest of a college student, noted Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). Limiting their enforcement powers, he said, “is an idea to look at.”
“I’ve now seen a number of the photos and have looked at several of the videos, and the entire incident is very troubling to me,” said House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville). “I talked to the governor’s office and fully support an expedited independent investigation, which I understand from Secretary of Public Safety [Brian] Moran, is already underway.”
Both the Virginia State Police and ABC report to Moran, but Toscano said he is confident that would not make the investigation anything less than arms-length.
“State police really do not control the ABC,” Toscano said. “That is one of the problems that we have. They’re not trained in the same way. It’s clear that they don’t resolve incidents in the same way. The state police are very independent in this. They don’t answer to the state police. I talked to Secretary Moran and he’s troubled as well and wants to get to the bottom of this as soon as possible.”
Moran did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who has long served on a House subcommittee that oversees Virginia ABC, said he has concerns about ABC focusing too much on the low-level underage drinking busts that local police can conduct, and not enough on the law enforcement functions that ABC officers alone are empowered to handle: Auditing the books of restaurants to see if they are observing the law that requires a certain share of their sales to be food.
Under Virginia law, establishments that sell beer and wine must sell a minimum of $2,000 in food per month. Those that serve mixed drinks must make 45 percent of their sales in food. Albo said restaurateurs who observe the law are “pretty angry” that some establishments manage to get away with flouting it.
“It’s a bigger problem [than underage drinking] and there are already police officers who can do that,” Albo said. “A Fairfax County police officer cannot go into a restaurant and subpoena books and start looking for liquor-ratio violations.”
During the recent General Assembly session, Albo successfully championed a bill to remake the ABC board into a public authority. The measure, which awaits McAuliffe’s signature, is intended to make the ABC function more like a business by freeing it from public employment and procurement rules. It does not address Albo’s concerns about the focus of ABC law-enforcement efforts. Albo said he hopes that could be accomplished through budget language next year, possibly with wording that would make funding contingent on the completion of a certain number of liquor-ratio audits.
Albo said it was too soon to comment on the specifics of Johnson’s arrest in Charlottesville.
“We have no idea what happened,” he said. “We have to wait to see. People who get really drunk sometimes can be problematic. … [But] if the police officers used excessive force, I would expect proper discipline.”
Like Albo, Toscano said that he believes ABC officers should primarily focus enforcing violations committed by alcohol licensees, such as establishments that serve under-age drinkers rather than the drinkers themselves.
“Why did the ABC agents feel that they have to take it upon themselves to police city streets?” Toscano asked. “If there is an issue, they should call in the city police department, and they did not do that until they got into trouble.”
“So far as I can determine, this youngster that tried to get access to the restaurant, for some reason he was turned away,” Toscano said. “I think he is under age, so he was probably turned away because the bouncer or people at the door concluded he was not eligible to come in to drink. The ABC folks should be inside the restaurant and enforcing the law related to serving underage people instead of outside trying to deal with a problem that is more appropriately dealt with by the local police.”
“It’s not like we don’t’ have some local bad experiences with ABC enforcement,” Toscano said. “There’s a racial element in this, but it’s more than just race because of what they did in 2013.”
Toscano noted that he had not seen any photos or video indicating how the man wound up on the ground and bloody.
“Until we see some of that, it’s hard to determine exactly what happened,” he said. “the images are very disturbing. Here you have a young man with a bloody face, African American, with an ABC agent kind of kneeling over him. That’s an image we’ve seen too frequently in recent days and it raises all kinds of concerns.”
Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), a former Prince William County detective, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the incident.
“I can’t tell you how many arrests I’ve had where somebody drinks courage in cup,” said Reeves, who pushed unsuccessfully this year to expand ABC’s powers to combat cigarette trafficking. “Now you’ve this anti-police mentality and people are feeling emboldened to challenge police. … Don’t rush to judgment until you find out the totality of the circumstances. Was he non-compliant? Was he drunk? What were the officers’ commands? Did the guy fight him the whole time? I can tell you, cops have bad days and I’ve seen cops be real jerks, but most cops … for them to have to go hands on, that’s not what they want to do.”
Brown reported from Washington and Vozzella reported from Richmond. T. Rees Shapiro and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.