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May 8, 2021

Locals condemn use of force during 2019 traffic stop of Georgia woman

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Local residents expressed anger and called for transparency from city leaders and local law enforcement officers Tuesday regarding a 2019 traffic incident that’s the center of a federal lawsuit alleging excessive force.

Stephanie Bottom, a 68-year-old from Georgia, filed a federal lawsuit in North Carolina’s Middle District about her treatment at the end of a 14-mile chase involving local law enforcement officers on Interstate 85 in 2019. In the suit, Bottom says law enforcement officers used excessive force, drew their guns during the stop, pulled her out of the car by her hair and tore her rotator cuff. She is requesting a jury trial, compensatory and punitive damages and the costs of court and attorney fees to be covered.

Incident reports show the chase occurred on May 30, 2019 when Rowan County Master Deputy Mark Benfield tried to stop Bottom around Julian Road for traveling 80 mph in a 70 mph zone. Other sheriff’s deputies and police officers joined the chase before a tire deflation device was used near Davidson County Airport. Body camera footage shows Benfield pulling Bottom out of the vehicle by her arm. Former Salisbury Police officer Devin Barkalow is accused of pulling Bottom out of the vehicle by her hair.

Six locals spoke during the Salisbury City Council’s public comment session Tuesday, condemning the actions depicted in the body camera footage, emphasizing mistrust in local officers among Black and brown residents and calling for city leaders to be transparent and hold law enforcement accountable.

Regina Dancy said she debated speaking about the issue for fear she’d be perceived as “anti-police,” which she emphasized she is not, or an “angry Black woman” speaking out against racial injustice.

“I respect and appreciate police officers who uphold the oath to protect and to serve and carry out their duties with a sense of honor, courage and compassion,” Dancy said. “I know that they leave their homes every shift not knowing if they will make it back safely.”

She continued, “But this evening, I am an angry Black woman. Anger is only one of the emotions I felt when I witnessed the video of what transpired between Ms. Stephanie Bottom and the officers in 2019. I also felt horror, humiliation and sadness.”

Dancy called on the officers to answer questions of why the excessive force was used and why they ignored Bottom’s comment about a previous injury to her shoulder during the incident.

“I am exhausted with seeing Black bodies abused, tortured and sometimes killed by police officers for minor traffic infractions or other incidents that should not end in death,” Dancy said. “Like the officers who leave their home not knowing if they will safely return, many of us feel the exact same way every single day. There’s a fear that even while doing our very best to follow the law and mind our business, we can come across an officer who fails to see our humanity or value our lives. This should anger all of us.”

Mary Walker also denounced the incident depicted in body camera footage on behalf of Women for Community Justice.

“The information viewed in the video from 2019 released by local media is not what we expect or will accept from our local law enforcement,” she said. “We expect complete transparency from law enforcement.”

Walker said the absence of reprimand only perpetuates the abuse of power “that leaves us without justice.”

Whitney Peckman criticized local law enforcement for stating they want a good community relationship but choosing to “gloss this over” by hiding information about the incident until media reports.

“A gray-headed, Black lady driving 10 miles over the speed limit,” Peckman said. “And thank God they had to wear body cams or we still wouldn’t know what happened.”

Rev. Olen Bruner called on city leadership to work toward and enact changes that residents elected them to address, particularly archaic laws regarding racial injustice and police brutality that city leaders can hide behind and that “protect the system.”

“My first change is stop killing us,” he said. “Help us to change these archaic laws.”

Susan Lee said the lack of accountability is “very concerning” and violates community trust, adding that it’s “chilling” to think the same officers have been entrusted with local residents’ safety.

Jackie Miller said Bottom posed no threat to police officers during the incident.

“How many more Black and brown people are going to be hurt and killed by the hands of officers,” Miller said. “Those we have entrusted to keep us safe. And they’re the ones we fear the most.”

Following the public comments, Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins asked the city council to find a way to address the concerns and deliver transparency. She praised Salisbury Police for having officers who often go above and beyond their duty to protect and serve as well as for the department’s participation in racial equity training and tracking use of force incidents. But she added the data showing Black and brown individuals are disproportionately subject to police violence cannot be overlooked.

“In situations like this, they’re so serious. They’re so disturbing. They invoke such fear and distrust that we as a council have to think of a way in which we can respond,” Heggins said. “We as a council have to say more than, ‘be patient.’ We have to say more than ‘let the process play out.'”

Heggins suggested a public work session with the city manager, city attorney and police chief to discuss use of force policies and what role each person is expected to carry out. She also recommended watching the film “Driving While Black.”

City attorney Graham Corriher said he will continue working with the city’s communications department and City Manager Lane Bailey to deliver information about the incident that can be publicly disclosed.

Council members David Post and Brian Miller agreed with the request for data and information about use of force policies, but neither saw a need for a separate public meeting apart from a regular council meeting.

Council member Tamara Sheffield said she’s been in communication with Bailey about what next steps are needed to address a larger cultural issue regarding community policing. Though Chief Jerry Stokes has done some good things, Sheffield said, they’re not evident in the overall culture being depicted.

Alexander agreed with discussing use of force policies, but reminded the public that the incident happened two years ago and city council members are unsure at this time if something had been done to address the issue already.

“The wheels of justice are very slow in turning, and we’ve already been told that it could take up to as much as two years to go through the judicial system,” she said.

Bailey reminded the public that the Salisbury Police Department’s use of force policies are available on the city’s website.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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