In Ferguson, Mo., Before Michael Brown There Was Henry Davis

Sep 12, 2014
Originally published on September 12, 2014 7:28 pm

There's another symbol of why black residents of Ferguson, Mo., distrust the majority-white police department: the 2009 case of Henry Davis, who was charged with destruction of property for bleeding on the uniforms of police officers.

The Department of Justice last week announced that it has opened an investigation of Ferguson police and the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Officials say they will look at the Davis case, too.

And Davis says that's appropriate. He thought it was "crazy" when police told him they were charging him with property damage. "That tells me they're crooked," he says. "They're corrupt."

Davis' version of events — and the police department's — are almost completely different. But one thing isn't disputed: By the time Davis got out of jail, he'd been charged, four times, with destroying property, because his blood got on the uniforms of four police officers.

"Because they got a badge, and it's their word against mine," says Davis, who at the time worked as a welder at a military base and who has since moved to Mississippi. "What happened to innocent until proven guilty? It's the other way around."

It all started at about 3 in the morning on Sept. 20, 2009. Davis says he was coming home from a friend's house. It was raining so hard that he missed his highway exit and pulled off the road in Ferguson. The police report tells a different story: that police stopped a car driving at more than 100 miles per hour. That an officer smelled alcohol in Davis' vehicle.

Police say Davis refused to take a sobriety test. He says they never asked. Davis was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated and taken to the police station.

Davis says police first told him he was wanted on an outstanding arrest warrant, but then later said that they'd confused him with another Henry Davis. So he expected to be released.

Instead, four police officers led him to a jail cell.

Peter Dunne, the attorney for the city of Ferguson and three police officers named in a lawsuit brought by Davis, says Davis was defiant and refused to enter the cell. "And after his persistent refusal to do that, one of the officers puts his hands on his chest and pushes him backward into the cell. And then Mr. Davis recoils and strikes that officer in the face, breaking his nose."

Davis says he didn't punch the officer but only put his arms over his head to protect himself. Police say there was a violent struggle as officers handcuffed him.

In Davis' telling, the officer who was bleeding left and — while other officers restrained and handcuffed Davis — came running back into the cell. "And that's when [the officer] ran in the cell and kicked me in the head. He was running. He ran in the cell and kicked me like he was kicking a football."

Adds Davis, "I thought they was gonna kill me. I didn't know what they was trying to do. Because, I didn't put up no struggle or nothing for them to come here and do that to me."

James Schottel, Davis' attorney, asked Ferguson police for the videotape from the cameras that monitored the jail cells. Schottel says he figured that would show what really happened.

But the police turned over the wrong tape, from later in the day, and then said the tape for the hours in question had been recorded over.

Schottel doesn't buy that. "This would have all been recorded on the videotape. And you know, then they turn around and they allege that Mr. Davis punched one of the officers," Schottel says. "Well, I guarantee you [if] Mr. Davis punched one of the officers and he wasn't kicked in the head, that video would have been blown up on a big screen and would have been delivered with a bow on it from them immediately after the case was filed."

Eventually, Davis accepted a guilty plea and paid $3,000 in court fines and fees. He says his attorney at the time said it was the only way to avoid trial. The drunk driving charge was reduced to "careless driving." Two counts of property destruction — for bleeding on the uniforms of police officers — remained.

Dunne, the attorney for the officers and the city, says it was reasonable to include the charges for property destruction.

"When he strikes the officer and he's bleeding himself, his blood is getting on every surface of the cell, including all of the officers and all of their uniforms," Dunne said. "None of this would have happened but for Mr. Davis' really unreasonably, uncooperative and ultimately violent attitude. So it was totally appropriate to charge him with that because he was totally responsible for it."

A court threw out Davis' lawsuit last year, citing the limited immunity police officers have from being sued. But in testimony, some of the police officers backtracked on whether they could be sure Davis bled on them. One of the officers sued by Davis, Kim Tihen, left the Ferguson police department and is now a member of the Ferguson City Council.

In July, Davis asked a court to reinstate his lawsuit. He hopes the new scrutiny of Ferguson police — by the public and the Justice Department — will help him this time.

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