Video released by police in Oklahoma shows an officer pepper-spraying an 84-year-old woman after authorities entered her home to search for her son.
The footage — captured Aug. 7 on a Muskogee Police Department body camera — shows police kicking open Geneva Smith’s front door in pursuit of her 56-year-old son, Arthur Blackmon, who had entered the house after refusing to pull over during an attempted traffic stop.
An officer fired a stun gun at Blackmon, who appeared to be holding up his hands after ignoring multiple commands to approach police.
Some heavily edited videos shown on TV news outlets and circulating on social media show police approaching Blackmon’s mother after he’s Tasered, and pepper-spraying the frazzled woman as she stumbles backward.
But a full, uncut video released by police last week reveals that a more complicated sequence played out before a white police officer discharged her pepper spray into Smith’s face, prompting the elderly black woman to turn her head, raise her arms and fall to the ground.
Smith is seen on the uncut video cussing at officers and ignoring their commands to turn around.
“Get out of my god—- face!” she yells at officers as she faces them near her front door. “I’m 84 years old, f——, don’t f— with me! I ain’t turning around for s—!”
“Turn around and face that way or I’ll spray you,” a female officer is heard shouting at Smith seconds later.
Then, as several officers move past Smith to sweep the home, the octogenarian takes several steps backward with her hands down before she is pepper-sprayed.
“My mother’s 84 years old, motherf—–,” Blackmon can be heard yelling.
“Oh, Lord, help me, Jesus,” Smith says after collapsing.
“My eyes!” she screams.
Smith told Fox affiliate KOKI that she had just awakened and walked into her living room when she was confronted by police.
“I just come out and asked them what was going on, and they just pepper sprayed me,” she said.
But the full police video shows that about 40 seconds passed between the time Smith made her first statement to police and when she was pepper-sprayed.
Smith told KOKI that she had not recovered from the pepper spray more than a week after she was exposed to it and said she plans to sue the department over the incident.
Muskogee police officials have defended the use of pepper spray in Smith’s home but are continuing to conduct an internal investigation. The department released video of the incident Friday in an effort to be transparent, Police Chief Rex Eskridge said.
“This is a very important issue,” Eskridge told KOKI. “There is a lot of missing information out there. There is a lot of prejudgment out there and a lot of concern.”
“Video can’t give you the full sense of what happened, but at the same time they do either validate or expose any warts that you might have,” he added.
Derrick Reed, a member of the Muskogee City Council who has criticized police for their treatment of Smith, told The Washington Post that Smith was arrested and taken to jail, where she suffered “a medical complication.” She was taken to a hospital and later released, Reed said.
Smith was charged with resisting an officer, but the charge was dropped days later, police said.
The video was released amid a contentious national debate over how law enforcement agencies use force and whether black Americans are disproportionately subject to aggressive — and sometimes deadly — policing tactics.
According to a National Institute of Justice research brief, most U.S. law enforcement agencies have used pepper spray (or oleoresin capsicum) since the late 1980s “as a use-of-force option to subdue and control dangerous, combative, or violent subjects in the field. OC, with its ability to temporarily incapacitate subjects, has been credited with decreasing injuries among officers and arrestees by reducing the need for more severe force options.”
An earlier paper from the NIJ — a Justice Department agency — noted that pepper spray “incapacitates subjects by inducing an almost immediate burning sensation of the skin … and swelling of the eyes. When the agent is inhaled, the respiratory tract is inflamed, resulting in a swelling of the mucous membranes lining the breathing passages and temporarily restricting breathing to short, shallow breaths.”
A North Carolina study of in-custody deaths determined that pepper spray “contributed to death” in two of 63 cases, “both involving people with asthma,” according to the Justice Department. In other cases, researchers “concluded that death was caused by the arrestee’s drug use, disease, positional asphyxia, or a combination of these factors.”
Video of the confrontation has angered some critics of the Muskogee Police Department. Smith, they say, was confused and overwhelmed and wasn’t given time to comply with officers’ commands.
Critics consider the idea of using pepper spray on an elderly woman particularly brutal.
“This lady is 84 years old and frail … bottom line is Geneva should not have been pepper-sprayed,” Cedric Johnson, a member of the NAACP, told the Muskogee Phoenix.
Reed, the city council member, said police used “excessive force” and noted that the only weapon Smith had on her “was her mouth.”
“Anybody who gets their door kicked in wants to know what’s going on,” he said. “She was not the criminal and she was not the one who was being pursued. This is a confused 84-year-old woman and they had many options they could’ve chosen to use to apprehend her.”
Muskogee, about 50 miles southeast of Tulsa, is home to just under 40,000 people, according to census figures.
Reed said he grew up in the city and formerly served as the local NAACP chapter president. The relationship between the city’s black community and its police department has come a long way in recent years, he said, but the pepper-spraying incident shows there’s more work to be done.
The councilman said he met with police and other city officials this week and thinks they’re sympathetic to the community’s concerns.
“The message is strong and clear from the black community: We have a great police force, we don’t want to beat up the police force, and we don’t want to make it seem that all officers are bad and that we don’t have a good relationship with police in the city of Muskogee,” Reed said. “But we’re not happy about what happened that night.
“We have to ask the question: If this was a white grandmother with no weapons, would the same thing have happened?”
In a 735-word statement, police said the incident began when Blackmon refused to pull over during a “routine traffic stop” after running a stop sign. He instead drove to his mother’s home and ran inside.
At the time, the statement said, authorities didn’t realize it was his mother’s home, and they feared that the people inside could be in danger.
Officers surrounded the house and “attempted to make contact numerous times by knocking on the front door” and by verbally announcing their presence, the statement said. After breaching the front door, police said, they encountered Blackmon in a front room, where he continued to ignore their commands.
Video shows police using a stun gun to subdue the man, “to deescalate the tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving situation,” the statement said.
While securing the scene, the statement said, police also encountered Smith, who refused multiple commands to turn around and put her hands behind her back while evading officers’ “attempt at physical control.”
“At that point and after warning the female, the officer used pepper spray to gain compliance,” the statement said, adding:
Police are regularly placed in situations where split second decisions are made, particularly when it comes to the use of force. They must be acutely aware of not only their own safety and other officer’s safety, but the safety of bystanders, and the safety of those with whom they are dealing in potentially combative situations.
When securing and clearing a scene, most generally a home, Officers are trained to secure all persons until a threat assessment can be made. Non-lethal force has been a tool long used when dealing with individuals who fail to comply with lawful commands. When reviewing this incident, the following facts are now known.
Scott Wood, an attorney who represents the city of Muskogee, told the Muskogee Phoenix that the truck Blackmon was driving was not registered to him. When officers arrived at the residence, they claimed they heard a man and a woman shouting “call police” and “call 911,” leading them to believe the home’s residents were in distress.
“It starts off as a traffic stop — that’s a low misdemeanor — but based on the other evidence gathered in those three minutes … it could be a severe crime,” Wood told the paper. “It could have been a home invasion.”
Police said Blackmon faces charges of driving under the influence of alcohol, obstructing an officer, carrying a weapon and driving with a suspended license.
This is not his first encounter with law enforcement, according to Oklahoma court records. He has convictions dating back to the early 1980s for assault and battery with dangerous weapon, larceny and burglary, as well as a DUI misdemeanor in 2011.