Bad Cops

Woman’s Right was Violated in Forsyth County

woman's right

A woman’s right was clearly violated in this incident. A city of Cumming police officer accused of violating the constitutional rights of a woman during an incident in November has been cleared of wrongdoing by a departmental investigation, authorities say.

On Thursday, the City of Cumming Police Department released internal affairs documents from an investigation into an incident that occurred on Nov. 15, between CPD Officer Jonathan Fitzpatrick and a citizen, Ashley Harris.

In her complaint, Harris alleged that Fitzpatrick violated her civil and constitutional rights, specifically the 8th Amendment, which protects against “cruel and unusual punishment,” when her hands were handcuffed behind her back for roughly 30 minutes during an investigation, which reportedly caused her immense pain.

According to statements from witnesses and authorities, the incident between Fitzpatrick and Harris occurred following a three-vehicle wreck at 2255 Market Place Blvd. in Cumming.

Three black male suspects allegedly fled on foot from one of the vehicles following the wreck and were seen throwing bags into dumpsters and bushes in the area. Officers from the Cumming Police Department and Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office quickly flooded the area in an attempt to locate the men and learn why they fled.

According to his statement during the investigation, Fitzpatrick approached Harris in the parking lot of the Old Navy store on Market Place after witnesses reported seeing the suspects fleeing towards the shopping center.

Fitzpatrick told investigators that initially he believed Harris fit the descriptions that had been given of the fleeing suspects — three black males wearing dark clothing, black jeans with dreadlocks. And when he discovered she was female, he was unsure whether the witness descriptions could have been mistaken.

In Fitzpatrick’s body camera footage from the incident, the officer can be heard calling out to Harris as she walked towards her car, asking her to stop so he can talk to her.

“You involved in that wreck?” Fitzpatrick asked.

“What wreck?” Harris replied.

“The one right here,” the officer said, pointing out of the camera’s field of view.

Harris said that she had been in Best Buy, at the other end of the shopping center, for the last 45 minutes and there were people in the store that could vouch for her.

When Fitzpatrick asked for Harris’s identification, she refused, stating “I’m not giving you anything.” Fitzpatrick immediately placed Harris in handcuffs and moved towards his SUV parked near the Old Navy store entrance.

“Why are you putting me into handcuffs?” Harris asked as she was walked towards the SUV.

“I told you. I’ve got to identify you,” Fitzpatrick replied. “I asked for some identification.”

In their investigative findings, authorities said that Fitzpatrick was right to place Harris in “investigative detention” — when a person is held in custody while officers investigate their possible involvement in a crime — because her refusal to produce identification raised the officer’s suspicion that she was lying about being involved in the wreck, and the officer had “no other option but to place her in handcuffs” due to “officer and citizen safety concerns.”

“It was still uncertain as to why the suspects in this case were fleeing and if it was because they were involved in another crime or possibly armed and dangerous,” the report states. “Regardless of that information there was not a female officer present to ensure Ms. Harris didn’t have weapons…”

About three minutes into the recorded interaction, Harris begins to hyperventilate and falls to the ground near the back of Fitzpatrick’s SUV, crying.

Eventually, she explains that her back was hurt in two prior vehicle wrecks and the way the cuffs had her arms positioned was hurting her back. After about 10 minutes, Harris is put into the SUV, still handcuffed.

In her complaint, Harris also alleged that an EMT responding to the scene “refused to treat her” for her back pain, a claim which is denied by representatives with Central EMS but partially confirmed by Fitzpatrick’s body camera footage.

At 16 minutes into Fitzpatrick’s footage, an ambulance arrives at the scene and two Central EMS employees head towards the SUV where Harris is being kept in detention.

After being told by Fitzpatrick that Harris needed to be checked out for complaints of back pain, an unidentified female paramedic states that she had been to the wreck on Market Place Boulevard, had seen “female’s stuff” in the suspect’s vehicle and could let the officer know whether Harris was involved in the wreck.

 

“Yes, this one was involved in that wreck,” the paramedic said to Fitzpatrick, about one second after opening the SUV’s door. “She was in the car accident … That’s the one they just said ran.”

“She’s screaming everywhere, jumping and rolling, so she’s fine,” the paramedic said as they walked back to the ambulance.

In a statement to the Forsyth County News, a spokeswoman for Central EMS denied that their paramedic refused to treat Harris, stating that the employee “triaged the priorities of the scene” and moved to assess another individual in close proximity.

“We do not believe that the company’s paramedic did anything that caused harm or injury,” the spokeswoman said. “Central EMS’s review of the incident and the bodycam footage provided recently to the company is ongoing. Once that internal review is completed, we will provide training, direction and/or disciplinary action as needed to our employees involved in this incident.”

From the initial confrontation to her release, Harris was kept in custody approximately 31 minutes. Throughout that period, she can be heard on camera alternately screaming and crying about pain in her back and yelling angry profanities intermixed with moments of calmly explaining that she was in Best Buy and asking the officers to look at her receipts or ask store employees to prove it.

“I have receipts in my wallet. I was at Best Buy,” she said after Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Richard Wiggins arrived on scene to assist Fitzpatrick. “Why would I calm down? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Eventually, Harris’s alibi was confirmed by both Wiggins and Fitzpatrick from camera footage at Best Buy and Harris’s receipts from the store. Shortly after those discoveries, she was released from custody.

The internal affairs report, conducted by Detective Nicole Esquillin, a newly hired Cumming Police Officer and retired Atlanta Police detective, concludes that Fitzpatrick did not violate any department policy during the incident based on the witness statements and other evidence.

“Officer Fitzpatrick utilized criminal procedure during the incident. Most of all, in no way did officer Fitzpatrick violate Ms. Harris’s civil or constitutional rights. Nor did Officer Fitzpatrick intentionally inflict undue bodily harm or pain on Ms. Harris,” the report states.

 

The report states that no disciplinary action was recommended as a result of the incident, but it was recommended that Fitzpatrick “be counseled and review the Standard Operating Procedure on ‘Body Worn Cameras’” for a section of his body camera footage of the incident which was incorrectly muted.

Following the report’s release, Harris’s attorney Zach Greenamyre, of Atlanta law firm Mitchell & Shapiro, said that they disagree with the report’s conclusion that Harris’s rights were not violated during the incident.

Greenamyre said that they take issue with Fitzpatrick’s statements in the report that he could not immediately tell Harris’s gender and “smelled marijuana” coming from her, and do not believe those were adequate reasons to detain her.

“We are not surprised that the Cumming Police Department has sided with its officer instead of a citizen who claims that CPD officer Fitzpatrick engaged in racial profiling,” Greenamyre said. “What is more surprising is that the department has taken Fitzpatrick’s word over Harris’s based on such weak evidence … Taking away those facts, the only remaining fact linking Harris to the people suspected of fleeing the scene of the accident is race. That is not enough to make an arrest that complies with the United States Constitution.”

Greenamyre did not respond to inquiries whether he and his client would be pursuing legal action against the department following the report’s conclusion.

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