Two men accuse Raleigh cops of racial bias, excessive force following incident in Glenwood South | Wake County | Indy Week
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Two men accuse Raleigh cops of racial bias, excessive force following incident in Glenwood South 

Isaac Horton (left) and Omeze Nwankwo

Photo by Alex Boerner

Isaac Horton (left) and Omeze Nwankwo

It had been several minutes since Omeze Nwankwo was locked inside a Raleigh police van. Zip-ties dug into his wrists behind his back, drawing blood.

"Officer, I cannot feel my hands!" he yelled, addressing the cops in the front seat. "I'm worried about my life. Officer, please!"

Nwankwo's friend, Isaac Horton, was also inside the wagon. Though his hands were cuffed, he'd managed to grab his cell phone from his back pocket. He activated its audio-recording app.

"We're sitting here on a side street," Horton whispered, beginning his narration of the late-night incident last July.

"I'm begging you, officer!" Nwankwo wailed. "I cannot feel my hands!"

"My rights have not been read to me," muttered Horton, his voice overlapping with Nwankwo's moans.

"Officer, please! I can't feel my hands! Officer!"

"It's 2:34 a.m."

"I literally can't move any of my fingers!"

About an hour beforehand, the two friends were enjoying a night out at the Glenwood Avenue nightclub Noir, a regular destination for them. What began as a casual drink ended in a confrontation with the cops on the street, leading to charges of trespassing, resisting and "pedestrian interference"—a city ordinance intended to restrict panhandling.

The charges were ultimately dropped. Two weeks ago, Nwankwo and Horton filed a federal lawsuit against the city and four police officers. The two men, who are African American, contend that they were targeted, falsely arrested and subjected to excessive force because of their race.

As Glenwood South has become one of Raleigh's essential late-night hubs, police presence in the district has increased. And now, atop the city's recent debate over outdoor patios and downtown noise, the role of law enforcement within the city's newly thriving nightlife scene is evolving. In a national climate in which smartphone-armed citizens have grown skeptical of police, Raleigh cops know they're on watch as they seek to control throngs of sidewalk-clogging revelers during the witching hours.

While Nwankwo and Horton were vindicated, others defend the increased police presence. Dan Lovenheim, the owner of several Raleigh bars, says that in order for entertainment strips to prosper, law and order must be maintained.

"If you fill a stadium with 8,000 people, somebody is going to act up," he says.

Isaac Horton and Omeze Nwankwo - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Isaac Horton and Omeze Nwankwo

Nwankwo and Horton, both in their late 20s, have bright futures. Nwankwo graduated from East Carolina University with a psychology degree, Horton from UNC–Greensboro with an economics degree. They developed their friendship over their shared interest in renewable energy and recently opened a food truck, Oak City Fish and Chips. Their fathers both have PhDs: Nwankwo's dad is a retired university English professor and award-winning poet; Horton's dad is an inventor.

Around 1 a.m. on July 12 last year, Horton exited Noir's patio and walked to an adjacent alleyway to make a call. Moments later he was approached by a Raleigh police officer who told him to leave the alleyway. The officer's tone was "aggressive," Horton recalls.

Fearing a confrontation, Nwankwo, who carries a sinewy frame, walked up to the patio's edge to check on his friend. When he arrived, the police officer instructed him to swing back through the club and exit through the main door. Several more police officers would soon descend on the scene.

The first officer, Nwankwo says, instructed him to step off of the sidewalk. "I know my rights," Nwankwo replied curtly, nevertheless backtracking onto a patch of grass. Then, Nwankwo recalls, the officer told him he couldn't stand on the grass either. Suddenly, the cop grabbed Nwankwo's shoulders and pressed him up against a parked car, he alleges.

Officers placed Nwankwo's hands in zip-ties and led him onto the busy street. A squad of at least six RPD officers surrounded him as pedestrians and clubbers stopped to watch.

Horton believed his buddy was being arrested for no reason. "I ascertained that a crime was taking place," he says. "Something illegal was happening."

Nwankwo's wrist, days after police handcuffed him with zip-ties.
  • Nwankwo's wrist, days after police handcuffed him with zip-ties.

Since childhood, Horton had been ingrained with lessons from the civil rights movement. His father, he says, was the first African American to integrate public schools in Johnston County, prompting the KKK to burn a cross on his family's property. His father's cousin, Cy Grant, is the senior resident superior court judge in a three-county district in the eastern part of the state.

"I was taught, growing up, especially as African Americans, it's not what you know, it's what you can prove," he says.

With that in mind last July, Horton whipped out his cell phone and began recording his friend's arrest. His lawyer shared the video with the INDY.

On that video, a distressed Nwankwo can be seen yelling about pain in his wrists. After mentioning something about "faggots," he shouted, "Are you guys recording how tight these cuffs are? Are you guys recording how he's cuffing me for no reason? I know my rights. I did absolutely nothing wrong!"

A minute later, officers began walking Nwankwo across Glenwood toward their van. Horton trailed behind. "I'm right here," he said, trying to console his friend.

"Why are you putting so much pressure on my hands?" cried Nwankwo. "I'm walking! You're going to break my wrists!" He says one cop responded by tightening the zip-ties.

As Horton followed the officers, one brushed against him. "Don't try and bump into me, man," Horton told him. "I'm not assaulting you. Don't try your tricks, man. This is public."

At this, one of the officers craned his neck around and noticed Horton videotaping the event from a few feet behind him. "Back away from me!" he yelled. Then he barked a command to a fellow officer: "Ten-ninety-five him"—a directive to place a subject under arrest.

"All of a sudden I feel a force knock out my phone," Horton says. "Someone grabs me and presses me against a car. And I'm in handcuffs."

As police escorted Horton to the van, a pedestrian grabbed his cellphone from the street and surreptitiously slipped it into Horton's back pocket.

Nwankwo and Horton's experience occurred during a period of intense transition in the bar-cluttered Glenwood South neighborhood. Last fall, City Council established the Glenwood South Hospitality District to address noise complaints. That designation, which will undergo a trial run through November, allows bars to offer "amplified entertainment" subject to certain times and decibel levels, and mediates disputes between partiers and residents.

The district's rise in popularity has, unsurprisingly, prompted an uptick in police presence. Between June 1 and July 30 of this year, there were 185 complaints made to RPD involving outdoor establishments in the district, according to city records. The complaints ranged from loud music to intoxicated people to suspicious individuals. The highest number of incidents occurred on early on Sunday, between the hours of midnight and 1 a.m.

If you ask Nwankwo and Horton, race plays a role in who police keep their eye on late at night. "There is still a lot of racial profiling going on, and still a lot of abuse of power by RPD," says Nwankwo. "There was a preconceived notion that these two big black guys must be up to no good."

After he and Horton were detained in the police van, Nwankwo, still in pain, curled into a fetal position to avoid putting additional pressure on his wrists. "My mom and sister are nurses," he says. "I know what can happen to you if you're not getting blood to your body."

During the ride to the Wake County Jail, Horton activated his phone's recording app, documenting Nwankwo's moans.

"These things are too tight!" Nwankwo screamed as the van rumbled across the city. The officers in the front seat never looked back, he says.

Inside the jail, Nwankwo's hands had turned numb and blue, he says.

In his lawsuit, Nwankwo cites the officer who allegedly harassed him as a detective named R.J. Pike. Pike charged Nwankwo with pedestrian interference (the panhandler law) for "imped[ing] the flow of traffic by standing in the way," according to the citation. He was also charged with resisting a public officer. Pike charged Horton with second-degree trespass and resisting a public officer. In his arrest warrant, Horton was described as "getting in the way of officers who were arresting another subject."

After they were released on bond that night, the men, declaring their innocence, showed up at several court hearings over the next year. But the two complaining witnesses listed in Pike's report—a bartender and security guard at Noir—apparently never showed up, and prosecutors dismissed the charges this past May.

Horton says it is only because he and Nwankwo have money and resources that they succeeded in getting their charges dropped. "This is happening to young African Americans on a routine basis," he contends.

Whether Nwankwo and Horton were actually targeted because of their race is, of course, impossible to know with any certainty. Last Saturday night on Glenwood Avenue, the scene was typically chaotic, with hip-hop blasting from cars, motorcycle engines revving down the street and hundreds of young people of various races flooding the pavement. Police officers manned several of the bar entrances.

(Jim Sughrue, an RPD spokesman, notes that the cops posted at bar entrances on that strip are working in an off-duty capacity and are paid by the establishments.)

Pike was stationed in front of a bar called Solas, which had attracted a primarily African American crowd that night. He appeared friendly when interacting with the bar's patrons, shaking their hands and patting their backs come closing time. (He declined to comment for this article.) Other black bar-hoppers who were interviewed didn't voice concerns about racial profiling.

Still, Horton says the experience "haunts" him, afflicting him with an unshakable trepidation of police.

"I didn't understand how I could be treated that way," he says. "I think people need to know, there's a general sense of fear African Americans have to carry on their back. That's a really heavy burden to bear—to be uncertain about your freedom."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Where the sidewalk ends"

  • The police charged one of them with illegally standing in a sidewalk

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