Police overreacted in activist's arrest

Published May 15, 2007

At the guidance of my attorney, I have declined to speak out about my arrest Feb. 27, the brutal treatment by Largo police and the utterly false statements included in the police reports. Now that these outrageous charges have been dropped, I think it is important to speak.

But first, I want to express the extraordinary gratitude I feel toward those who have written letters of support and sent words of encouragement. I am thankful to the American Civil Liberties Union for providing legal counsel and to the many witnesses who stepped forward to describe the violent actions of Largo police.

Friends in law enforcement tell me this happens all the time. An officer loses his temper, begins an unjustified arrest and then adds a false "resisting with violence" felony charge to cover his actions. The costs to the victim are outrageous: physical injury, emotional distress, a public assault on their character, the possibility of five years in prison, loss of voting rights and exorbitant legal costs. Without the ACLU, I would have mortgaged my home to fight these charges.

I believe this was an ugly act intended to intimidate people exercising our First Amendment rights by an officer who disagreed with our message. How else to explain the rage and the violence of the arrest? Within moments of handing a piece of paper with the words "Don't Discriminate" to a person who asked me for it, I was grabbed, my arms twisted to near breaking behind my back. I was shoved down a hallway, banged against a wall and slammed to the floor.

I believe the people at the hearing who followed the police as they took me away and the photographer who snapped a picture of four officers kneeling on me might have saved me from greater harm.

I am proud that Equality Florida members and community supporters did not bow to intimidation or respond in kind to the ugliness shown by Largo police. We showed up in even greater numbers at the second hearing March 23 and held firm to a commitment to nonviolent social change and to speaking up when discrimination and bigotry show themselves in our midst.

I spoke at that second hearing and the atmosphere was different. The officer who arrested me and the others who slammed me around were nowhere to be seen. In their place were fire marshals and police who dealt respectfully with those gathered.

The rules were posted at every doorway, and when a student was asked not to hold a sign in the council chambers and asked, "Why?" an officer briefly explained the policy.

I do not expect police to be perfect, unfailingly polite or without emotion. I know there are dangers and tough judgment calls law enforcement officers face.

But when you wear a badge and carry a gun and have the power to use physical force and to take away an individual's freedom, you must be held to a standard that does not allow that extraordinary power to become a license to abuse. You may not use that authority to silence dissent or to bully those whose opinions are not your own.

At moments like these, police departments habitually close ranks and blindly back an officer no matter how wrong. But there is another way. Los Angeles police appear to be dealing seriously with the apparent misconduct caught on video of officers beating and taunting peaceful demonstrators.

Largo police should throw out the cliched responses. They owe the community the level of professionalism they displayed during the second hearing, not the arrogance and brutality shown at the first one. A public apology is a good way to start.

Nadine Smith of St. Petersburg is executive director of the gay. lesbian and transgender advocacy group Equality Florida. She was arrested at the Largo City Commission's first public hearing on whether to fire transsexual city manager Steve Stanton.