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'It’s Meant To Be Punishing': Protestors Allege Summer of Jail Abuses

Police behind riot shields
The Richmond Police and Sheriff's Office have come under fire for their handling of protests that erupted following the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota. Protesters allege they were subjected to strip searchers as punishment after being delivered to the Richmond City Jail. (Photo: Coleman Jennings/VPM News)

After Richmond Police arrested Gabrielle Brost during a protest about coronavirus cases in the Richmond City Justice Center, she was transported to the jail, strip searched and held in a brightly lit single cell overnight and through much of the next day.

Her misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice with force was dismissed in November, but she has shelled out $11,000 on medical care related to the concussion she sustained during the arrest. The injury still limits her work as a strength coach.

“This charge and resulting incident was not only wholly unsubstantiated, but was illustrative of the violence and lack of accountability that has become the calling card of the Richmond Police Department,” she wrote in a letter to her attorney after her arrest. 

Yet the experience didn’t surprise Brost. More than three months after demonstrations had begun, protesters say they knew the post-arrest pattern: Tightly-cinched cuffs, body scanners, strip searches, fingerprints, mug shots, and hours in chilly jail cells, even after the magistrate said they were being released. RPD officers often insulted demonstrators during the arrest process.

“It’s meant to be punishing and it’s meant to be intimidating so that people basically sit down and shut up,” Brost said. “I don’t think anybody really could understand the full weight of the traumatic experience we went through. I’m not even sure I fully do at this point.”

Meghan McIntyre was among the first to experience what later became a ritual for protesters when she was arrested on May 31, the first night of a curfew requested by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. McIntyre, one of 233 people arrested that night, was trying to return home after police stormed a crowd of demonstrators. An officer provided her directions that led her to a wall of law enforcement personnel wearing riot gear. Half of the approximately two dozen people in her transport weren’t wearing masks, which had fallen off their faces.

After hours of waiting in the vehicle, she was directed into the jail, where she was told to strip. The guard conducting the search exited the room for about ten minutes, leaving McIntyre standing naked. When the sheriff’s deputy returned, she told McIntyre to remove her shoelaces, bend and cough. 

“She just watches me the whole time” McIntyre said. “The whole thing was just very, very uncomfortable and unnecessary for getting arrested for breaking a curfew.”

After seeing the magistrate, who released her with a bond, McIntyre was fingerprinted, mugshotted and was placed in a brightly lit single cell. She lost sense of time, but noticed people who had entered the cells after her being released. 

“If you were to picture what an insane asylum were to sound like, it’s like there. There were echoes in there, too. There were screams of pain. There [were] people crying, screaming, the amount of banging on the doors, people pleading,” McIntyre said.

She also said her skin turned purple with cold, and “towards the end, I kind of started acting like that as well, banging and screaming, because I was just losing it.”

The Richmond Sheriff’s office did not comment when asked why protesters were held for long periods after a magistrate had said they were being released. 

Dennis Kenney, a former Florida police officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal  Justice, said there was “not much justification” for conducting strip searches after people had been sent through a body scanner and released by a magistrate. Kenney questioned why the protesters were incarcerated at all.

“The point of the arrest is not to fill up the jails, the point of the arrest is to essentially throw cold water on a protest that’s going bad,” Kenney said. “You process them, you generally try to drag your feet long enough to let everything cool down before you release them, so you don't just turn them loose a half an hour later and then they go right back. So you can justify holding them for a couple of hours until things have cooled down, and then you kick them out the door.”

Emilee Hasbrouck, who co-founded the RVA Legal Collaborative to provide free legal services to protesters, said the strip searches were “rampant” and estimated that 60-70 percent of protesters arrested on May 31 were strip searched. After this date, the strip searches appear to have been comprehensively applied. Protesters interviewed for this article only knew of one person who wasn’t strip searched after seeing the magistrate and spoke of this individual’s case as a well-known aberration. 

Lawyers expressed concern about the strip searches, which jail policy says “will be conducted of an inmate during the Intake/Booking Process.” The Richmond Police did not answer questions sent for this piece. When asked which agency decided to bring protesters to the jail for processing, the police told VPM to “contact the Richmond City Justice Center.”

“We would still want to see an individualized determination that the strip search was necessary for any individual, Nicole Tortoriello, the Secular Society Women’s Rights Advocacy Counsel at the ACLU of Virginia said. “This is one of the most invasive and humiliating types of searches that can be conducted, and we would not want law enforcement to use that lightly.”

For protesters in Richmond, strip searches and lengthy delays in the jail came to be expected. A medic was strip searched each of three times they were arrested at protests. So was Knisya Johnson, who was arrested while standing in the GWARBar parking lot with the permission of the bar’s owner, Michael Derks. Kristopher Goad was arrested two weeks after an alleged misdemeanor and taken to jail and strip searched, in stark contrast to a 2016 arrest when a sheriff’s deputy notified him by phone of a warrant and he merely had to fill out paperwork.

Protesters said sheriff’s deputies sometimes acted in ways that exacerbated the humiliation of a strip search.

“During my strip search the guards were joking that ‘ones like me always got it’ and ‘I better watch my back cuz the guys in there are bigger and scarier than I’ve ever seen,” Jay Skinner said. He spent an entire weekend in the jail, but said his charges were later dropped. “They genuinely made me fear for my sexual autonomy.”

Alex Oxford, a trans woman, said a male deputy took her into a room for a strip search, even though she was wearing a skirt and the deputy had seen her ID. When Oxford requested a female officer conduct the search, the deputy asked if she was a woman. 

An intersex protester said staff asked “what’s on your birth certificate” and whether they were a “man or a woman.”

Lynn Murphy, who is trans, said she was also asked whether she was a man or a woman, even though jail staff had her ID. During the strip search, the guards made faces and derisive comments about her underwear and genitals.

"They just acted extremely performatively, like ‘ew, we don’t want to be here, this is gross,’” Murphy said. “Basically everyone I talked to was vaguely transphobic at some point and pretty hostile.”

Documents VPM obtained via a records request show that the sheriff’s office has detailed policies intended to ensure strip searches are conducted professionally. The policies state that the sheriff’s office has “zero tolerance towards all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment in its facilities.” Staff are instructed to “avoid using language that a reasonable person would consider demeaning, specifically language aimed at a person’s actual or perceived gender identity expression and/or sexual orientation.” According to the document, violation of these standards could result in termination, criminal charges or civil penalties.

When asked how many staff members have been disciplined for sexual harassment of those detained in its jails, the sheriff’s office said, “by law we do not discuss personnel issues or disciplinary findings.”

“The law enforcement community is only just starting to figure out and implement the best procedures for trans people,” Tortoriello said. But she said the experiences described by protesters speak “to an underlying lack of respect and courtesy that is unfortunately far too rampant among law enforcement.”

Throughout the protests, activists and legal groups have accused the police of abuse. 

The ACLU has sued the Richmond Police, City of Richmond and Virginia State Police, alleging that, “by instilling in lawful protestors a credible fear of bodily harm for assembling, RPD and VSP’s tactics discourage protestors from exercising their constitutional rights to protest against police brutality and racial inequities in the American criminal legal system.” 

Protesters have contended that the unusual arrest process was also intended to suppress free speech and discourage them from appearing at future actions.

“This was shocking that it was happening to protesters, to people essentially expressing their First Amendment right,” said Andrew Kuykendall, who was arrested on a Friday and held at the jail with other protesters through the weekend. He said he spent more than 60 hours in jail. “I think this was absolutely a handshake between [RPD, the sheriff and Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin] saying you put ‘em in cuffs, we’ll keep ‘em in cuffs as long as we can. I think it was punitive.”

As prosecutors for cities like Portland, Los Angeles and Philadelphia have dropped charges for swarms of protesters, the charges have largely remained in Richmond. When asked how many protesters were charged and how many charges have been dismissed, Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin said she didn’t know: “A number of people were arrested for numerous offenses, including trespass, assault, obstruction of justice, vandalism, violating curfew, etc.  Since there is no charge of ‘protesting,’ I would only be assuming whether any particular individuals actually were protesting anything at the time that they were arrested, unless you are referring to a specific case.”

Elected officials have largely supported the police as protests raged on. Though Councilman Michael Jones proposed to explore how police funds could be redirected, only one other councilmember supported his proposition. A leaked video shows Mayor Levar Stoney saying there was “nothing criminal” about an officer driving through a crowd of protesters, while speaking to police behind closed doors.  

“You’re letting police and sheriff’s deputies decide which person gets treated humanely and which one doesn’t. We can’t live in a just society where there is a class of police and deputies that get to dictate other people’s rights at given moment,” Goad said, noting that during a massive gun rights rally last year, police ignored protesters wearing masks in possible violation of a 1950s-era law but arrested a woman of color for her mask.

Because police will “never willingly give up their right to remove the humanity of people they don’t see fit to have it,” Goad said, “it’s the requirement of the elected officials and the protesters to demand this change.”

Like Brost, some protesters are no longer facing charges. Instead, they say they’re left with trauma.

“I’d been sexually assaulted multiple times years ago, and I consider this another time I was sexually assaulted,” a protester, who asked not to be identified by name, said in reference to the strip search. “Everyone thinks it’s ‘somebody else’ being abused by cops. Somebody they hate. Not a white long-haul trucker.”

Another protester who suffered a concussion during her June 23 arrest for unlawful assembly outside City Hall, which protestors have dubbed Reclamation Square, said she spent at least $850 on medical expenses. She no longer felt comfortable attending nighttime protests, fearing that police would declare an unlawful assembly, and asked for anonymity.

“I have pretty severe post traumatic stress from my arrest. It’s been really rough honestly,” she said.

The experience showed others how much more they wanted to change.

“As a white girl who grew up in NoVa, I am incredibly privileged, and I have never experienced any interactions like that with the police before,” McIntyre said. “If anything, it makes me more motivated to go out into the streets and to fight back.”

*CORRECTION: We fixed a typo in a line identifying someone's gender.

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