This is a photograph of Christina West after she was subdued by Tallahassee police officers during an Aug. 10 arrest on a charge of DUI. / Leon County court records
(Tallahassee.com) Top city officials were kept in the dark about an incident last month in which a woman was badly injured by Tallahassee police officers during her arrest on a DUI charge, which was caught on video by a dashboard camera.
And if it were not for the woman's defense attorney alerting the State Attorney's Office about questionable use of force, the video would not have come to light when it did.
Christina West, 44, was arrested in the early morning hours Aug. 10 after crashing her SUV into an unoccupied house in Killearn Estates. Officers could be seen in the video slamming her head into the back of a police vehicle before taking her forcefully to the ground. Her cheekbone was broken in two places, her eye swollen shut and her nose bloodied during the arrest.
The video didn't become public until Tuesday morning, when the Tallahassee Democrat obtained a copy of it from prosecutors. It touched off outrage from the community and sparked media coverage from around the world, appearing in the Huffington Post, the New York Daily News and outlets in England and elsewhere.
WATCH: Christina West's DUI arrest (WARNING: Graphic content)
Two Tallahassee Police Department officers, Matthew Smidt and Chris Ormerod, were suspended with pay on Tuesday night, a full month after she was injured. West was initially arrested on several counts of battery on officers, but prosecutors have since dropped those charges. The DUI charge is still pending.
On Wednesday, city commissioners weighed in during their regular meeting, with some expressing dismay over how West was treated by police and how the entire matter was handled by the department.
City Manager Anita Favors Thompson and City Attorney Lew Shelley said they didn't know about the incident until Commissioner Scott Maddox emailed them and other commissioners Sept. 4. State Attorney Willie Meggs, who said he found out about the video from West's defense attorney about a week earlier, reached out to Maddox.
"The state attorney contacted me because he didn't feel like he was getting a response from the city," Maddox told commissioners. "Regardless of how the city feels, that's how the state attorney felt, and shared the information with me. I shared the information with the city manager, who had not heard of it, shared the information with the city attorney, who had not heard of it, and the assistant city manager over the Police Department, who had not heard of it."
Maddox added, "That's a problem."
Jones ordered an internal-affairs investigation into the matter Aug. 29, six days before Meggs, who was deeply troubled by the video, brought it to the attention of Maddox. Jones, who was attending a Sept. 11 memorial Wednesday, declined to comment on the case because it's part of an ongoing investigation.
Commissioner Andrew Gillum said he was concerned by the way he and other city officials learned of the video.
"I was, I think, most disturbed at the way the information filtrated through," he said during Wednesday's meeting.
At one point, Gillum said he was under the impression that Chief Jones found out about the video at the same time he and other commissioners did, from Maddox. But Maddox corrected him, saying, "The state attorney brought it to the chief."
Gillum responded by saying, "Then the chief didn't bring it to the manager and so on and so forth. Anyway, that will all be sorted out."
Mayor John Marks called the treatment of West a "very, very serious matter."
"This is not what we expect from our law-enforcement officers," he said. "We have to let the investigation continue. But I can assure everybody (and) anybody out there we will get an explanation. We will get to the bottom of this and determine what happened and why. We have to. That's the kind of community we are. We don't like these kinds of things to happen."
Video could have gone unseen
Meggs said Wednesday he first heard about the video from West's defense attorney, Fred Conrad of Tallahassee. Conrad obtained a copy of the dashboard-camera video from TPD to prepare for an administrative hearing to secure a temporary driving permit for West.
When Conrad viewed the video, he called Chief Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman, Meggs said, and urged her to review the footage. State Attorney investigator Jason Newland then obtained a copy of the video from TPD.
Typically in DUI cases, Meggs said his office would receive a copy of the police probable cause report a couple of weeks after the incident and decide whether to pursue charges. The video would be included as part of discovery, but he said the West video likely would not have been seen based on the report, which did not indicate the strong force used against her.
"We do not have the time to watch all videos," Meggs said. "We probably would not have looked at that video by reading that report."
But when he did, Meggs said he was alarmed. He showed it to several other people inside and outside his office to get their impression and ensure he was not overreacting.
"Everybody that sees it just drops their jaw," Meggs said. "I have replayed it in my mind in the middle of the night. I can't get that image out of my head."
TPD officials say they have not yet made a determination on whether appropriate force was used during West's arrest.
However, a TPD use of force report written by Officer Ormerod the day of the incident was approved the next day by his supervisor, Sgt. William Faust, who also was at the arrest scene. It was forwarded to Lt. Woodrow Kerce, who reviewed it and deemed "use of force approved." From there, the report went to TPD's Internal Affairs office, where such reports are compiled for statistical purposes.
In the use-of-force report, Ormerod wrote that West became aggressive when he and Officer Smidt tried to put her handcuffs back on. Ormerod noted the officers "bent West over the front of (his) patrol car," and then "lifted West off of the car so that she could be laid onto the ground to prevent her from kicking."
The report went on to say Smidt "placed his hand on the back of West's head to keep her from getting up," and Ormerod "placed (his) knees on West's backside." When Ormerod placed her wrists behind her back, he reported she "reacted by screaming in a rage and violently grasping with her hands at me."
Conrad said his client was cooperative during the arrest and that the video shows police were using excessive force.
During Wednesday's City Commission meeting, commissioners said they want a full and fair investigation of exactly what happened.
Commissioner Gillum said it was the talk at the south-side barbershop he visited on Tuesday. People expressed outrage that excessive police force didn't become an issue until an incident occurred in an affluent north-side neighborhood.
"It took a Killearn situation in order to make this a front-page piece in the newspaper," he said. "Justice has to be just for everybody all the time, any time. And it doesn't matter if it's in Killearn, in Frenchtown, in the south side, in Midtown, in downtown, in any part of town."
Gillum said it will take police officers and commissioners to repair the damage.
"There is a public trust," he said, "in this case that's been broken."
Jeff Burlew and Jennifer Portman, Tallahassee Democrat