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Witnesses claim police brutality, Dover protesters agree

Andre Lamar * Delaware
andre.lamar@doverpost.com
Dover Post

Update: This story has been edited for clarity.

Tasheema Heyliger found herself stuck in traffic after Disrupt to Focus protesters blocked South Dupont Highway in Camden.

It was June 9 and she was waiting in her car while she noticed a shift in the atmosphere. The nurse said she witnessed protesters being “thrown, tossed and tackled to the ground” during the protest, which began on Route 13 near the Camden Wawa.

“It almost felt like I was watching a football game,” said Heyliger, 45, of Dover. “As a mother, someone who’s very concerned, I got out of my vehicle to record what was happening right before my very eyes; and also to try to give words of encouragement (and somewhat reassurance) in the best way I could.”

She was standing in the grass, clad in medical scrubs, near the Music & Arts shop in Camden at 3443 S. Dupont Highway, recording police being physically aggressive with the young adult protesters -- some of whom were young enough to be her child. 

“Wow, why are we doing this? It doesn’t take all that,” Heyliger said in response to this video she recorded (at 1:26), questioning why police were using excessive force on an unarmed demonstrator who was violently slammed to the ground by a cop, followed by a forearm to the back of his head and multiple officers restraining him during his arrest. 

In her video, you can see the police outnumbered the protesters, along with officers carrying assault rifles and an armored truck on the highway. 

The eyewitness said she didn’t see any protesters assaulting police. She also saw young women getting manhandled by cops.

Among the marchers, Emily Franze, of Frederica, said she was confused why she and her peers were getting arrested. Franze said cops were heavily armed and that scared her.

“They’re going to kill us. Somebody is going to kill us,” the 27-year-old white protester said, before an officer took her down to the ground by her neck in this video by protester Casey Jaywork (at 0:43). “Even though we we're out there protesting against police brutality and racism, I got to see it right there in front of me.”

In Heyliger's video (at 1:30), an officer is heard telling her she has permission to be there, but she needed to back further away from the scene. The nurse said she complied. Courts have held that recording the police is protected by the First Amendment.

But without warning, a cop tackled her while she was recording this video (at 2:12).

“Someone shouted out, ‘Is someone recording this?!’ After that, the next thing I remember is an officer coming and literally charging at me,” the 5-foot-2 nurse explained. “I said, ‘What did I do? I’m not doing anything.’ He goes right behind me and throws me on the floor.”

Heyliger’s hands were immediately zip-tied. The officer who grounded her walked away.

She panicked.

“At that point I’m anxious; I’m hyperventilating,” said Heyliger, who’s Hispanic. “The whole time from that first officer to every officer I encountered, I felt like I was pleading for my life.”

Heyliger said she tried to tell every cop she saw that she was an innocent bystander, but none would help. Her phone was confiscated and she ended up getting hauled away in the back of a police cruiser like 21 others on the scene.

She was confused about what was happening, she said, because the police hadn’t explained what law she broke. At some point, she said a cop told her the orders to arrest people came from Attorney General Kathy Jennings.

Teen felt ‘attacked’ 

Meanwhile, Disrupt to Focus protesters said they didn’t know why they were handcuffed and taken to State Police Troop 3.

“That experience was the first time that I felt personally attacked because of my skin color,” said Samiah Ortiz, 17, of Smyrna. She is Puerto Rican and Black. “I heard one of the officers say, ‘get that bit** on the ground.’ Then right after that I had three officers on me. They slammed me on the ground and put my face in the dirt. My glasses went flying.”

She said her right arm has been in a sling. She said she was forced to quit her job at a pizzeria because she’s right-hand dominant and can’t make pizzas with one arm.

Ortiz, an honors student from Polytech’s Class of 2020, said she was molested in the past. So she was troubled when a male officer reached his hand inside her leggings to turn off her phone, despite being one of the few protesters who wasn’t recording.

“I was sexually assaulted for my phone, and my phone wasn’t even out,” Ortiz said. “That experience gives me a little bit of PTSD because I already don’t trust men. As a young woman, there’s already a lot of things I have to take precautions for. But it makes you feel like an animal. It makes you feel less than you are.”

'Thought they were going to shoot him' 

Adaria Bracy, 26, of Dover, is seen in this video getting knocked off her feet by a cop (at 0:06), while she was sprinting to check on a friend who was in trouble.

Bracy and her peers had been peacefully demonstrating in the Dover area for a week, where they’d block off roads and see police shadow them and provide traffic control on a daily basis. But this time the number of cops in Camden was at least three times what they were used to seeing. An armored truck was also present.

“The police outnumbered us. There was no warning. There was no time to disperse,” Bracy said. “Out of nowhere, all you saw was one of my close friends being thrown on the ground. He’s tall, but he’s not wide. It would not take three officers. But they did. I was running towards him because I thought they were going to shoot him.”

Bracy was running to help Nelson Henry, 31, of Dover. Henry and a few others stayed behind the main group and got separated.

Henry said he hung back because protester Denise Diallo, 24, of Dover, was having a standoff with Dover Police Department Deputy Chief David Spicer.

Henry said Diallo stopped in front of Spicer’s police cruiser while holding up a poster for him to see. Then he said Spicer began speaking in code.

“After he got out the car, he yelled to the other officer, ‘15 seconds.’ But as he’s saying that, he actually tries to grab and arrest people without actually saying why. 

Diallo, who said she was shoved by Spicer, explained that the standoff with Spicer began when she recognized he was the same officer who bumped her with his vehicle during the first protest in Dover, May 31.

That protest started out peacefully during the afternoon, but as more people joined by the evening time, it ended in looting and with Diallo having a standoff with police near the Delaware State Police Headquarters.

“I stood in front of his car and I started to yell, ‘Do you remember that you were the same officer that hit me?” Diallo said. “He specifically said, ‘I don’t remember you and I don’t give a fu** to remember you.’ He then says to a state police to the left of him, ‘15 seconds.’”

The 24-year-old said Spicer shoved her to the ground for no reason on June 9. Diallo said fellow protester Brittany Jesse stepped in and tried to shield her, then Spicer proceeded to grab and detain Jesse, Diallo said.

“Before I knew it, everyone was on the ground,” Diallo explained.

Henry said the police brutalized him.

“They slammed me to the ground. My hands were underneath me and one officer put his knee in my back, and he applied enough pressure to fracture my ribs,” the 31-year-old said.

Henry said he didn’t understand what has happening.

“I was asking them, ‘Why, what did we do?’ and they still weren’t responding,” he said. “I asked them if I’m being detained or arrested and they still would not respond to anything I was saying.”

Eyewitness: Police started it 

Josie Sexton, 19, of Dover, said she saw what led to the arrests, because she was working in a nearby business (which she declined to name since she said the owner doesn’t want to be associated with this incident).

She saw Disrupt to Focus protesters blocking traffic on Route 13. Then she noticed four police cruisers. But she kept doing her job. “We carried on, business as usual,” Sexton said.

Then she saw police using their vehicles in a dangerous way.

“The windows [at work] are thin, so you could hear everyone was yelling outside. We saw [cops] literally trying to push people with the police cars down the road, into the median, I guess,” Sexton said.

The 19-year-old said there was a single officer who was driving behind two protesters. It appeared the protesters were trying to prevent the cop from driving further down the street.

“This police officer walked out. They were having a discussion. I guess they said something that triggered the police officer and he took both of his hands, and he pushed her to the ground. That's when everything just kinda went crazy," Sexton said.

“As soon as I saw the one who got pushed, I kept telling everyone, ‘He pushed her! He made the first punch’ kinda thing. ‘It was the police officers.’ Then we just watched outside. I was so worried it was going to go bad,” she said.

The eyewitness said there were at least twice as many police as protesters. She also saw cops assaulting protesters, but not the other way around. “There was a lot of punching,” Sexton said. “There was definitely officers grabbing people’s clothing to pull them to the ground.”

Sexton said she didn’t agree with protesters blocking traffic, although she understands why they did it. Even so, the white eyewitness said the police were out of line.

“You want to think that police officers are trained to not ... no matter what any of the protesters said that day, it gave them no right to react the way they did,” the 19-year-old said. “There was no physical violence on [the protesters'] end. It looked like a normal protest, [where they’re] speaking with emotion."

Sexton said she filed a written complaint the week of the arrests at Troop 3. She also wrote a post on her Facebook page the night of the arrests, because she didn’t want to forget any important details. (You can see those messages in our photo slideshow.)

She said the arrests and assaults “traumatized” her and “it's definitely affected my trust in the police.”

Before filing her written complaint, Sexton said she called Troop 3 the night of the incident, to discuss what she saw. It didn’t go well.

“The one lieutenant that I talked to was very nice. Then I talked to a detective. He was very just kinda [non-reassuring],” she said. “He didn't make it seem like they wanted to do anything about it.”

Sexton said the arrests happened too abruptly, as if they were trying to silence the protesters.

“They cleaned it up so quickly. They just wanted to get everyone out of there that day and they made it seem like they were trying to steer [the protesting] away from the public," she said.

Nurse goes to jail 

Nurse Heyliger was in the back of a cop car with a female protester, and she said neither of them understood why they were in police custody.

“I’m still pleading my case and there’s also another young lady in the vehicle and she’s [saying] ‘I still haven’t been told why I’m being arrested,’” said Heyliger, who went into detail about her awful experience in this 30-minute video

The 45-year-old said the driver told her he saw that she got lumped in with the protesters, and he’d try to advocate on the nurse’s behalf.

When she arrived at Troop 3, the Dover woman said she continued to plead her innocence to any officer she saw. Protesters spoke up for her.

“The young women that were there, they mentioned, ‘She wasn’t even with us. Why do you have her here? Let her go,’” Heyliger said.

She told someone in uniform that the officer who drove her to the station could vouch for her. About 15 minutes later, the nurse was released, she said.

“The Dover police officer that drove me in, and the state trooper, walked me out through a side door. I was told that in situations like that, they don’t know who’s who and things like that happen,” she said.

Heyliger doesn’t know exactly how long she spent at the precinct, because her phone was confiscated. But she estimates it took a couple hours from the time she began recording protesters to when she was escorted out the side door.

While in custody, Heyliger wasn’t told why she was detained or what was going to happen to her. She said she wasn’t granted a phone call.

‘Another hashtag’ 

Heyliger sustained a few injuries from police. Her zip-ties were “extremely tight” and part of her skin got stuck between the plastic. Getting abruptly tackled also exacerbated her preexisting lower-back problem.

The Dover woman said she’s been taking over-the-counter pain medicine for her sore wrists and back, plus she’ll likely need physical therapy. 

Mentally, however, the 45-year-old nurse said she doesn’t know how she and her family will recover. News about her detainment worried her son so much that he had a panic attack, she said.

“My younger son, who’s 12 years old, said he didn’t want his mom’s name to be another hashtag, a name that people were chanting, because she was killed by a police officer,” Heyliger said. “I was thrown face-down and zip-tied and I was tackled to the ground. I don’t know, [how] will I ever erase that?”

Heyliger said her husband was very concerned when a friend, who saw her get detained, told him she was in jail.

She said her husband showed up at Troop 3 to learn about her status, because he didn’t know if she was injured. His arrival didn’t go well with the police.

“Three officers came out and they came out pulling their black gloves on,” she said, “and [they] told him, they were gonna tell him one time and one time only, [that] he needed to get all the way off the property.”

One of the officers finally gave her husband a card with a number on it and said, “Maybe you can check back in an hour,” she added.

‘This looks crazy’ 

An officer drove Heyliger back to her Dover home. She said it was humiliating to ride home in a cop car.

“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m getting escorted out of a police car. This looks crazy. It feels crazy. I’m just all emotional,” she said. “I wanted for him to pull in the driveway. If I could just crawl under the car and run inside my house. That’s how I felt.”

Heyliger said she filed a complaint against the officer who tackled her.

Did she experience police brutality?

“Yes, there was unnecessary force that was used to tackle me to the ground for doing nothing, other than being a bystander and recording,” the nurse said.

“I was not breaking any laws. There was no need for that force to be used. [There] was no need for someone to toss and tackle down a 5-foot-2 woman to the ground and zip-tie in that fashion,” she added.

Even after getting home, Heyliger said she was still concerned for the protesters she left behind.

The Dover nurse recalled the protesters in Camden and said she couldn’t ignore the “images and voices that I heard, and just hearing the young people’s cry.”

Same fight as ancestors 

Martina Jackson, 27, of Camden said her arresting officer handcuffed her wrist so tight she had to use a wrist brace temporarily, because the cuffs were cutting off the circulation in her hand and made it sore. Jackson said she was detained for over 10 hours and was handcuffed the duration of that time.

She said one of the cops was mocking her as she yelling for a family member during the arrests.

The Disrupt to Focus protester said June 9 was a very hot day and an officer intentionally left her and a fellow protester in the police cruiser with the windows rolled up for a long time, once they reached Troop 3.

“That day it was about 90 degrees. Imagine being in that garage, there’s no circulation, the windows are up and we sat in the car for over 30 minutes,” Jackson said.

“My eyes were watery. I couldn’t even believe that we’re going through the same thing our ancestors went through,” she added. “To leave me in the car like that … they don’t treat their German shepherds like that. They don’t treat their canines like that.”

Jackson said she was handcuffed for over 10 hours before getting released.

White protesters speak out 

David Haynes, 20, of Dover, said the arrest and his treatment at Troop 3 was unjust.

“I don’t think they treated us right in there. We were held for 11 hours and we got one snack,” he said. “There were no Miranda rights. I asked for the right to speak to an attorney, which wasn’t granted. There’s a lot of things they didn’t do right and we’re gonna hold them accountable.”

Haynes said it was important to protest for racial equality because white voices like his are needed now more than ever.

“It’s disgusting what’s happening. This isn’t the time to be silent and the time to say, ‘I’m not racist.’ And even just with posting Instagram photos [in solidarity] and whatnot, that’s over. We’ve gotta act. There’s too much wrong going on for anyone to be quiet about it. We’re trying to make the country better. I don’t know what’s more American than that.”

Kathy Haynes, 59, said she waited for David, her son, overnight with family members of the other protesters outside of Troop 3.

The Dover mom said prior to June 9, she undermined police brutality.

“I’ve heard co-workers talk about getting treated differently or they feel like they’re under suspicion. It’s hard to believe as a white person,” the 59-year-old said. “You think, ‘Oh, it can’t be that bad’ or ‘that doesn’t really happen,’ and ‘the police don’t really do that.’

“Being with everyone [June 9] and seeing the video and hearing the stories, and waiting for my son for 10 hours, I really get it. As much as I can understand as a white person, I really get it now,” she said.

The mom said David stood up for a noble cause. “I’m very proud of my son. I know his dad is as well.”

Jake Svaby, 18, of Dover, came out to protest because he’s starting to understand racial injustice and he needed to do more to help Black people, he said. But he didn’t expect to get arrested for it.

“People are being thrown down left and right. It’s all happening really fast,” Svaby said. “I record a police officer shoving, who I think was Adaria, and the next thing you know I was told to ‘get the fu** on the ground.’ I was thrown on the ground. I called out [for help]. [A cop] said, ‘shut the fu** up.’ I dropped my phone and I got cuffed.”

Megan Thomas, 27, of Dover, said police were the aggressors. Slim with a 130-pound frame, Thomas said police used excessive force on her and her fellow protesters.

“I went out to a peaceful protest. We were walking down the street with some signs. As some cops showed up, they kinda went around us. We were walking away and talking,” she said.

“I turned around and saw some people were around the cops. So I started walking back towards them. All of a sudden, I see a cop push one of my friends on the ground, so I ran over to that area and then the next thing I know, a cop is tackling me from the side, knocking me down to the ground,” said Thomas, who’s seen getting slammed to the ground in this video (at 0:48).

According to a June 10 statement from Delaware State Police, protesters were “acting aggressively toward” drivers on Route 13.

In their own statement June 10, Dover police gave more detail, saying Disrupt to Focus protesters were ”running out into active traffic and engaging motorists.” The department said in previous days, protesters had “jump(ed) into active lanes of Route 13 traffic in order to closely engage motorists and pedestrians.

“These decisions led to many motorists calling 911 out of fear when being approached by protesters, some of whom were wearing body armor and armed with weapons in uncontrolled traffic patterns,” Dover police said.

“Based on the persistent disorderly conduct and defiance of a lawful order to disperse on June 9, Dover PD supported DSP as a mutual aid agency and began enforcement actions."

Multiple protesters with Disrupt to Focus said the group has members who open carry for their protection, because people are often threatening them with violence, but those armed members weren’t antagonizing motorists.

In total, police said 22 people were detained, including multiple minors. Of those 22, 20 were arrested and all charged with:

  • Disorderly conduct for refusing to disperse.
  • Disorderly for obstructing vehicle traffic.
  • Disorderly for obstructing pedestrian traffic and.
  • Disorderly conduct by fighting or violent tumultuous or threatening behavior.

Several of the 20 were also charged with resisting arrest and hindering prosecution. Most weren’t released until after 10 hours in custody.

What sparked the arrests?

Bracy said she believes the catalyst for the Camden arrests was what happened the day before. On June 8, protesters were marching through a housing development near Target in Dover, when they came across a Harrington police cruiser parked on the curb near a home.

“We actually went into the neighborhood of a police officer. I think that’s what incited it, actually -- the attack,” she said. “I think we called that officer out and his response was to silence all of us. I think the police wanted to mute us. I think that was the goal of what happened on Tuesday, [June 9].”

A Dover police cruiser was on the scene and two Dover cops were standing in front of the home near the Harrington vehicle. Protesters were crowded in front of the home, demonstrating in front of the two officers, calling for an end to police brutality.

Not long after, a flood of Dover reinforcements arrived on the scene, including deputy chief Spicer. Those officers kept their distance from the protesters, who were continuing their week-long streak of peaceful protesting.

The next day, a strong police presence came to Camden, comprised of Dover police and state troopers.

While Haynes was being arrested, he managed to record a conversation a Dover cop had with him.

With his phone still recording on the ground, you can hear the Dover cop in the video (at 0:37) say to Haynes, “Walking into neighborhood is a [inaudible]. We’ve been allowing you guys to do that for too long.”

Protesters marched through the developments of Sandy Hill and Traybern June 7. That was the first day the group decided to switch things up and march through housing developments.

Bracy believes all this contributed to the arrests on June 9, three days after they marched in solidarity with Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson around Legislative Hall.

“This was a coordinated plan of attack. The use of excessive force was very evident and it’s inexcusable,” Bracy said. “The chief has a few of our organizer’s numbers. If he felt like we were being a little too hard on Monday, [June 8], he could’ve made the call. But instead, they made a different call, and now you’re seeing the results of that call.”

Attorney General denounces arrests 

Within hours, a handful of officials weighed in, including Attorney General Kathy Jennings.

While nurse Heyliger said an officer told her the arrests were authorized by the attorney general, Jennings denounced the incident.

“I’ve been clear with law enforcement that I do not believe civil disobedience should be treated criminally and that peaceful protesters should not be harmed,” she said.

“People have a right to free speech and to peaceable assembly in this country and our goal – regardless of their message or their ideology – is to ensure that they can exercise that right safely. Period.”

Cell phone r

Mike Brickner, executive director for ACLU of Delaware, said there are situations when people have the right to record the police.

“When you're in a public space like a park or a city street, or a sidewalk, the police are out in public so you're able to record them and what they're doing,” Brickner said.

The police don't have the right to order you to stop recording them. They don't have the right to confiscate your phone, just because you're recording them, he added.

What police can legally do is if you're interfering with the work they're doing, they can ask you to back up, Brickner said.

You don't have the right to get directly into the police officer's face or insert yourself into the situation. But if you're a bystander, you’ve the right to record that interaction and the police shouldn’t stop you from recording it, he explained.

Brickner said when someone gets arrested or detained, officers often take your belongings and process those through the system. If they believe there’s something on the phone that they need for their investigation, they can confiscate that phone and hold it for a period of time.

In order for cops to view your videos or your photos or anything like that, “they would either need your permission to do that or they would need to get a warrant from a court,” he said.

“Our lives are on our phones. Just like an officer can't burst into my house and start searching without having a search order, they also cannot barge into your phone, your electronic life, and start searching without having some sort of court order," Brickner said.

‘Black people are here’

Moving forward, protester Bracy said members of Disrupt to Focus are meeting with politicians on ways to improve “racial equality, and bettering the relationship between the police and the people they police.”

On June 20, members of the group said they had a productive meeting with Delaware congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester. 

“It’s very important we create and maintain a positive relationship with the police, because they’re here. But it’s time for people to recognize Black people are here and we’re not going anywhere,” Bracy added.

Inspired by police brutality

Heyliger said she didn’t witness any protesters attacking police or carrying weapons. The nurse said the police were out of control.

Her recent encounter with police brutality has motivated her and her husband to become more active in the community and to champion reform in the areas that are needed.

She and her husband have a program called Life Skills Through Sports. They teach young people life skills, while providing basketball training for free. The couple has given scholarships to college students, she said.

Heyliger said she and her family are already helping to improve the community, but they’re going to get even more involved in the future.

The Dover nurse said she supports those who are leading peaceful movements for racial equality, because it’s essential right now.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m so proud and I commend our young people that are out there peacefully protesting to have their voices heard and to cause this revolution, so we can start the change,” she said. “It’s a change that needs to happen.”

NOTE: Dover Post reporter/photojournalist Andre Lamar was one of 22 people detained by police in Camden on June 9.

Editor's Note

Along with their June 10 press release, the Dover police put about 3-1/2 minutes of drone video on YouTube, showing how four officers detained Dover Post reporter Andre Lamar, who is Black.

He was broadcasting on Facebook Live before getting tackled: Video by Lamar.

The interference brought immediate criticism from journalists and officials. Gov. John Carney tweeted "Reporters have a fundamental right to cover the demonstrations we're seeing in Delaware and across the country. They should not be arrested for doing their jobs. That's not acceptable."