BY SHANNON WILEY
The Salisbury Police Department and an SPD officer are being sued for using excessive force by a group of three Salisbury University students, as well as a boy and his aunt in two different occasions in May and August.
Both suits are being filed by Salisbury attorney Luke Rommel.
The first suit involves alumni Curtis Adams, Travis Guthrie and senior Abdi Geleta who were arrested in May; Adams was arrested for alleged disorderly conduct while Guthrie and Geleta were charged with allegedly obstructing and hindering a police officer.
In both cases the arresting officer was Officer Justin Aita.
“My question that I’ve never had answered is what were they obstructing and what did they hinder,” Rommel asked.
After being arrested, the plaintiffs were detained and jailed for nearly 24 hours.
“There was no lawful, reasonable or apparent reason for the Plaintiffs’ seizure, detention, arrest or the use of police force that was inflicted upon them, other than the fact they were targeted as Salisbury University students,” the plaintiffs’ lawsuit states.
According to Aita’s statement in the police report, SPD officers were called to the area for a fight at the Monkey Barrel late one night. When Aita arrived at the scene along with other officers, he saw that there was no fight, but a crowd of 30-40 people standing in the Pat’s Pizzeria parking lot down the street from Monkey Barrel. Aita told them to “start heading home.”
According to Aita’s statement, while most fulfilled his request to leave, Adams began to yell and scream. Aita allegedly gave Adams a “lawful order” to leave the area and Adams began to leave, but then turned back and started yelling and screaming while 30-40 people stood by watching.
Aita stated in his report that Adams ignored his orders to stop, so he arrested him for disorderly conduct and Adams apparently resisted.
“Officer Horengic and I used enough force necessary to affect the arrest,” Aita said in his statement.
According to Aita, after he arrested Adams, Aita told onlookers standing close to officers to back up and leave, but neither Guthrie nor Geleta complied and “were extremely close to officers and began to make them fear that they would begin fighting them.”
Both Guthrie and Geleta were in the first row of people and videotaping the arrest on their cell phones.
Rommel said that in the surveillance video that everyone was calm until the officer ran to tackle the student.
“In one of the videos you can hear me saying that I’m not resisting, and then you can see them throwing me down,” Guthrie said. “Everyone in the front row was getting hit with a baton so that people would back up, even though no one was putting up a fight or resisting.”
In Geleta’s cell phone video, he said that he was “kneed in the stomach” while he was just trying to “walk away” and that he did not know why he was being arrested and was not read his rights.
“Two cops were being aggressive trying to put cuffs on me and throwing me to the ground, and even after I was taken down I wasn’t resisting but a third cop who came over was pushing his knee into my head” Guthrie said.
Rommel said he had offered to attempt to resolve this case “quietly and confidentially” through Alternative Dispute Resolution and sent a letter to Mayor Jim Ireton about it in August asking to “work it out.” After getting no response to the letter or other attempts to contact, Rommel filed suit on Sept. 2.
“There’s been a pattern of misconduct, in my opinion, involving how the city police interact with Salisbury University students,” said Rommel. “I feel there has been some disproportionate enforcement of minor offense violations against the students.”
In the other case being filed, 15-year-old RM and his aunt AF were arrested, also by Aita on Aug. 11. The names of RM and AF have not been released in order to protect the privacy of the minor.
RM was stopped by Aita for riding his bike with no headlight at about 9 p.m. When Aita began questioning him, RM gave the officer a false name for fear of getting into trouble, according to Rommel.
Rommel said that Aita then patted RM down but found no weapons or anything unlawful but then began to handcuff him.
“The officer chases after him, catches him, assaults him really, really bad,” Rommel said. “It’s actually described in his police report. He admittedly punches and kicks him. It is bad, and he was handcuffed at the time that all this was happening. The force wasn’t necessary.”
According to Rommel, at the time of the arrest RM’s aunt was driving as she happened to see what was happening from a distance and she was reminded of what had happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. because this was during the same time. As she got closer, she noticed this was her nephew.
AF pulled into the car dealership on Rt.13 where the altercation was occurring and according to Rommel, her first instinct was to tell him to stop because she doesn’t want him to get shot. He does that.”
Aita then admittedly grabbed her hair and threw her to the ground.
“She was arrested as well for reasons that I don’t know,” Rommel said.
Neither party knew of the other’s case until recently, according to Rommel.
The students from SU faced their criminal charges yesterday, and RM and his aunt still must face their criminal charges in local court, then both parties will go to federal court for their civil cases against the SPD and Aita.
In May when Adams, Guthrie and Geleta were arrested, they appeared before the SU judiciary committee but were found not guilty of breaking the SU code of conduct after watching the videos and hearing the story from the students,” said Guthrie.
Rommel said that he does not believe that Aita’s actions reflect upon other officers of the SPD, “but the fact that the Salisbury Police Department has backed this guy, encouraged this guy, continued to support this guy, taken no meaningful disciplinary action against this guy to me is troubling because he’s going to do it again if he hasn’t already.”
“We have no comment on the criminal cases or cases that have been filed by Mr. Rommel,” Ireton said, and denied a request for an interview with the SPD.
Rommel said that he hopes to get a “culture change” out of the civil suits, while Adams and Guthrie would like to see action taken against the officer.
Adams said that he would like to “set an example and prove a point.”
“I would like this officer to be inconvenienced because we were all really inconvenienced,” said Guthrie. “What he did was wrong and even if he was trying to protect himself, there’s a fine line he can’t cross.”
Rommel said that almost on a weekly basis, students come in feeling as if they have been treated unfairly, but students on campus seem to have mixed opinions on the SPD.
“I’ve never had any problems with them,” sophomore Cheyenne Powell said. “They are always friendly, so I feel they would be very helpful if I ever encountered a problem that I needed them to help me with.”
“They are extremely rude when it comes to parties, if they politely asked to stop the party I’m sure they would take it too far,” said one underage student. “Someone got tasered last semester. They yell at everyone in the house. I understand it’s illegal but being rude and scaring people like that won’t get the point across it will cause a rebellion.”
“The main problem that has been going on recently is that they have been arresting owners of the house who are having parties which is absolutely overboard in my opinion,” senior Martin Petrillo said.
“There are one or two officers that are very friendly with the students, but all in all I think they have to stay neutral for their job,” junior Lee Matthews said. “I mean me personally, I am indifferent to the SPD. As long as I do not do anything wrong, I’m okay then.”