The scene captured by a passerby on grainy video, has been watched by thousands on YouTube and local news channels.
A man riding in a wheelchair is apparently grabbed by his upper arms by two Metro Transit officers and forcibly pushed from his chair. He topples and lands hard on the ground, the right side of his face against a sidewalk grate.
The disabled man is Dwight Harris, a longtime Street Sense vendor, apparently not selling papers at the time of the incident. Following his violent encounter with the Metro officers on the afternoon of May 19 near the U Street Metro station, Harris was charged with resisting arrest and carrying an open container of an alcoholic beverage.
Harris was transported to a local hospital where he received stitches for cuts around his right eye, and then was released. But the video of the confrontation has taken on a life of its own. It continues to attract viewers and raise questions about the level of force the police used in arresting Harris.
Metro Police spokeswoman Angela Gates told Street Sense the incident is now under investigation by the Metro Transit Police and that the official report will not be released until a later date. She said the matter is being taken very seriously.
“Metro Transit Chief of Police Michael Taborn saw the video and had some issues with what he saw,” she said. Taborn was not available for comment.
In an interview with Street Sense on Monday, May 23, a bruised and bandaged Harris claimed he was not belligerent and was minding his own business when the police came up to him.
“Why would you ask me what’s in my cup?” Harris said he asked the police. Harris also said that the officers never read him his Miranda rights. He said he was not told what he was being arrested for until he was booked downtown.
He now acknowledges there was beer in the cup he was carrying. Harris had a blood alcohol level of .30 at the time of his arrest, according to unnamed official sources, cited by NBC News4.
Harris claims the police used “excessive force” citing the fact that he is in a wheelchair and posed no threat to the officers.
Anne Marie Staudenmaier, legal advocate for the homeless from the Washing-ton Legal Clinic, said she arrived at the scene, very near her office, after Harris was on the ground.
“What we saw was Harry laying on the ground, bleeding profusely with six officers standing around him with their arms folded,” she said.
As a crowd gathered more officers arrived at the scene, refusing to answer anyone’s questions, Staudenmaier said. Lawrence Miller, another witness, had tried to help Harris but was arrested by the police for interfering according to published reports.
Staudenmaier said that she thought the Transit police had gone, “over-board,” with their actions.
When she asked the closest officer why Harris was not receiving medical attention, she claims the officer asked, “Why do you want to know?” She explained that Harris was a client of their office and the officer responded, “This is none of your business. An ambulance is on the way,” according to Staudenmaier.
She moved to another officer at the scene who Staudenmaier said was more belligerent. She claimed the officer grabbed her arm and moved her away from the scene saying, “You need to stop asking questions and move away right now.”
“I think it was bored transit police who never have excitement, it’s like a classic case of rent-a-cop,” she added. “He’s not dangerous and he didn’t have a weapon.”
Harris is in the process of obtaining legal council. He was taken from the scene by ambulance to an area hospital where he received stitches to a cut near his right eye. He was then taken to the Central Detention Facility in Southeast D.C. He was charged and released.
For now, Harris continues to do “his thing” and is receiving a kind of hero’s welcome in his neighborhood. As he crossed the street to fill his prescription at the local Rite Aid May 23, a trail of friends followed him asking about the incident.
“I’ve bought Street Sense from him and he always seemed to have a pleasant look on his face. He seems to be a peaceful kind of person,” said Alison Whyte, a regular customer of Harris. “It was a horrible thing for those officers to do. They overstepped their boundaries. It did not appear that he was putting anyone in danger.”