Richmond police officer charged with assault during 2020 unrest pepper-sprayed people on video, civil suits allege

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – A Richmond police officer facing misdemeanor assault charges linked to an alleged “fogging” incident last year has been named in multiple civil lawsuits against the city.

The civil suits claim he was one of four officers seen on video pepper-spraying people walking along Broad Street and a man who recorded the encounter from his apartment.

Three civil lawsuits filed after the incident allege the officers “used unwarranted, excessive, and unreasonable force” on the plaintiffs. In total, the lawsuits seek more than $1 million in damages.

Christopher Brown and another officer, Mark Janowski, were indicted by a grand jury on three counts of misdemeanor assault in October for allegedly using O.C. fogger, a type of pepper spray, on three young women inside a car that was stopped at a Richmond intersection following a night of protests last summer.

Brown is also among four officers named in multiple civil lawsuits against the city accused of using pepper spray on three people walking along West Broad Street near Goshen Street and the man who captured the incident on video from his second-story window.

While the timeline is not clear, court filings allege both incidents occurred in the early morning hours of May 31, 2020.

Video shows a group of eight officers and three people walking towards each other on the sidewalk before an officer uses pepper spray on the three people. Civil lawsuits allege the police told the people to “go home” and one of them responded “no, you go home” before an officer sprayed them with “pepper spray or some other chemical irritant.”

A man living in the area at the time, identified as Mikhail Smith in court documents, yelled and cursed at the officers while recording the encounter from his apartment window. The video that was taken by Smith then shows an officer spraying into his open apartment window. Smith is then heard coughing on the video.

Smith and the three people on the street, identified in court filings as Destiny Sparks, Kiara Derricott and Charles Cosby, accused the unidentified officers of multiple civil rights violations in three separate civil lawsuits filed against the city last year.

Brown and three other officers, Anthony Farnsworth, Brian Rogers and Benito Frias, were eventually named as defendants in court filings from January. Their legal counsel filed pleas of qualified immunity in an effort to have the cases dismissed, arguing the officers are shielded from liability because their actions “were lawful in the situation they confronted.”

“The fact that Defendants acted in accordance with Richmond City policy, and only utilized a chemical agent where their attempts at verbal control were met with resistance, indicates Defendants behavior was objectively reasonable,” the officers’ attorneys wrote.

A similar plea was filed in the criminal case against Brown and Janowski.

Both officers are charged with three counts of misdemeanor assault and battery in an alleged “fogging” incident where three young women, ranging in ages from 17 to 19, claim they were pepper-sprayed while stuck in traffic just before 4 a.m. on May 31, 2020.

The attorneys representing Brown and Janowski sought to have the charges thrown out, arguing during a June 14 hearing that state code shields officers from charges if they are “quelling a riot or unlawful assembly.”

Colette McEachin, Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney, and her deputy, Michael Hollomon, wrote in a court filing that the young women were cursing at a group of officers while at the intersection but were not threatening them before Brown and Janowski sprayed their O.C. fogger inside the car.

The city’s prosecutors claim body camera video shows that the driver was only able to move the car to the next intersection before stopping for “three to four minutes.” The car eventually stopped again so the young women could switch drivers, the prosecutors wrote in court documents.

On July 9, a Richmond judge denied a motion from Brown and Janowski’s attorneys to present the qualified immunity argument at a pretrial hearing instead of in front of a jury as a defense.

A spokesperson for the Richmond Police Department told 8News that Brown and Janowski are on administrative leave but did not share when they were put on leave, citing a FOIA exemption. It remains unclear whether the officers are still being paid or receiving benefits.

Brown and Janowski are slated to appear in court for trial in mid-November.

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