Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Hot Springs officer who stopped skateboarders cleared by board

LITTLE ROCK -- A Hot Springs police officer who appeared to choke a skateboarder and put two others into a headlock in a video posted online used the proper amount of force when making his arrests, an internal investigation by police found.

The report, signed by five officers, found officer Joey Williams confronted a situation that "would have overwhelmed any single officer" when he stopped those breaking city ordinance by skateboarding on a downtown sidewalk June 21. However, the investigation faulted Williams for leaving a handcuffed suspect unattended while chasing another youth in the resort town's historic Bathhouse Row.

"I think it was fair," City Manager Kent Myers said. Witnesses "consistently supported the actions of the officer and his efforts to control the situation."

Video of the incident from a business' security cameras show 10 skateboarders rolling down the city sidewalk at a good clip, followed by Williams, who sprints past the last skater. A video taken by skateboarders and later posted to YouTube shows Williams on top of one of the skaters, apparently choking him. The video also showed Williams putting another two skateboarders in a headlock and the officer can later be heard threatening to use pepper spray on a skateboarder lying on the ground.

What remains unclear is what led up to Williams chasing one of the skateboarders down the sidewalk. Myers said it was "premature" to discuss what provoked the incident, saying it would be part of an upcoming court case against those charged in the incident.

Police said they arrested four juveniles and Matthew Jon McCormack, 21, and Skylar Nalls, 19, both of Hot Springs. McCormack faces a misdemeanor battery charge accusing him of pushing or striking a 67-year-old city employee during the melee. Nalls was cited for skateboarding and faces misdemeanor charges of fleeing and obstructing governmental operations.

YouTube shows the video has been viewed more than 1.4 million times since it was posted June 25. Since the YouTube video hit the Internet, Williams has been on administrative leave. Police said he would return Thursday to active duty in the city's downtown.

In their report, the officers described the June 21 event as being "part of a planned participation in a nationwide anti-authority demonstration." However, organizers of Go Skateboarding Day describe the event organized by skateboarding companies as an effort to encourage more people to take up skateboarding.

Those around the country who took part brought video cameras to record their tricks to win contest prizes, said John Bernards, executive director of the International Association of Skateboard Companies, based in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

Myers acknowledged the investigation wouldn't have happened without the YouTube video, but said the city had no immediate plans to post its own video response on the site.

"I think it shows the power of the Internet," Myers said.

Source: The Morning News - Jon Gambrell

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