In response to citizen concerns about police brutality during an arrest of an alleged drug dealer in the city, Mayor William D. Euille and three members of the Alexandria City Council met with neighbors in the James Bland Public Housing Project last Saturday.
The neighborhood reacted to the August 21, arrest of 33-year-old Walter Peterson Jr. for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute the substance.
During that incident at First and North Alfred streets, members of the Alexandria Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit observed Peterson selling drugs. When officers attempted to arrest Peterson, he fled. During the pursuit, an officer struck Peterson with a retractable club, knocking him to the ground.
Peterson was flown to Washington Hospital Center where he was treated for minor injuries and released the same night into the custody of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department. Peterson is currently in the Alexandria jail where he faces not only the charge of possession with intent to distribute, but also violation of probation charges.
Residents of the neighborhood saw the incident quite differently and believe that the police officer used excessive force and struck Peterson when he was attempting to surrender. Citizens held a march in support of Peterson on August 27, rallying at Market Square.
“The event that took place…was wonderful,” said Ieshia Barnes, referring to last week’s march. “We need more people to stand up and say something, more people to show up and show we have rights. We all are equal and should be treated the same as everyone. If we keep doing what we are doing, justice will be served.”
“How long are they going to get away with police brutality and racial profiling,” asked Bernadette Felton. “Every black person is not a bad person, nor is any person from the projects. Because Walter Peterson is a convicted felon does not give a police officer the right to beat him like he is an animal or a slave. Those days are long gone.”
Euille, along with Councilmen Ludwig Gaines, Rob Krupicka and Paul Smedberg, visited with citizens Saturday to hear those concerns.
“I want to make it clear that I did not go to the neighborhood to support Mr. Peterson, but to listen to the concerns of the residents of that neighborhood and to assure them that the police department is conducting an investigation," said Euille. "We need to wait for the outcome of that investigation before we rush to judgment. Our police department is one of the most professional police departments in the country and, I am certain, will investigate this matter thoroughly. We just all need to work together to see that the relationships among the police, the citizens and other parts of city government are good.”
“I heard a lot of frustration from the residents of this neighborhood,” Gaines said. “It isn’t just frustration with the police, but frustration with much of city government. Residents of this neighborhood want more recreation for their children, more employment services and, perhaps most importantly of all, better living conditions. The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority must step up to the plate and respond to some of these concerns as must the rest of the city government.”
Smedberg, who lives just a block and a half from the James Bland Housing Project, said, “I live in this neighborhood and know that 98 percent of the people who live in the James Bland Housing Project want the drugs and the drug dealers to be eliminated. When this incident occurred, that is apparently what the police were doing. If there was excessive force, I am certain that the police department will deal with that matter in an appropriate manner. However, I think it is very premature to call for the officer to be disciplined or fired before we have all of the facts.
“All of us have seen an increase in drug activity in the neighborhood recently and that concerns us. We have to work together to solve these problems,” Smedberg said.
DRUG ACTIVITY has increased in the city, according to police. In 2002, between January 1 and August 28, there were 26 incidents involving drugs in the James Bland Homes that were investigated by the police. Nineteen of these incidents resulted in arrests. During the same period this year, 36 drug-related incidents have been reported to the police with 34 of them ending in arrests.
Serious crime in the neighborhood has declined by 25 percent between 2001 and 2002, and another 25 percent comparing January 1—August 28, 2002, to this year’s serious criminal activity during that same period.
“Gerald Ford is the residential police officer in the neighborhood and has been there since 1997,” said Amy Bertrsch, a spokesperson for the Alexandria Police Department. “We are investigating the allegations of excessive force in the same manner that we investigate all other reports. We want to talk with anyone who believes that he or she has information relating to this incident or to any other incident.
"The night that this occurred, officers were handing out forms asking for information and our investigation is continuing. Anyone who feels that he or she has been mistreated by any officer should contact the department. We take these concerns very seriously and will investigate all complaints to the fullest.”
The police investigation is expected to be completed soon, according to a police department official.