It started with a family quarrel—nothing physical, just an argument over money between a sixty-one-year-old ex-cop and her son's girlfriend. But when Shelia Alston noticed an increased police presence in Bentwood Apartments, where her son lived (cops were in the area responding to an unrelated matter), she thought it best to resolve the conflict at a later date. So she told her son, Montsay, to head home and vowed to get back in her car and do the same.
What Shelia didn't know was that three Durham police officers were already making their way toward the dispute. And she had no way of predicting what would unfold moments after they arrived: that she would find herself thrown to the ground watching helplessly as Montsay and her fifteen-year-old grandson, SayKwan, cried out for help as Tasers jolted their bodies; that, for the first time in her life, she would be arrested and forced to make bail.
"I've never seen this happen just over an argument," Shelia Alston says. "What happened to my family didn't have to happen. It shouldn't have happened. What they did, how they did things that day, that's not the way I was trained."
Four people who say they witnessed this incident on June 19, 2014—and dozens more residents of east Durham who have, in recent weeks, shared with the INDY their own stories of what they characterize as abuses of power by certain members of the Durham Police Department—say they aren't surprised that officers Charles Barkley, M.D. Southerland, and C.Q. Goss, who showed up at Bentwood that day two summers ago, were also involved in the controversial November 22 shooting at McDougald Terrace that left thirty-four-year-old Frank Clark dead. In recent weeks, multiple McDougald residents who say they witnessed Clark's shooting have told the INDY that, contrary to the city's initial report, Clark was fleeing when he was shot from behind; photographs of the scene and of Clark's body obtained by the INDY appear to support this version of events ["The Cop Who Killed Frank Clark," December 7].
Now these residents are wondering whether, had the officers been punished after the Alston incident, Clark would still be alive.
After she told her son to go home that day in 2014, Shelia says, she was walking to her car when Goss stopped her to ask what happened. She explained that there had been an argument that was "loud," but said she and her family would settle what she considered a personal matter later. Meanwhile, she saw Barkley approaching Montsay, who was walking toward his home in Bentwood.
"As [Montsay] was walking down the sidewalk, Barkley came across. He said, 'Where you goin'?' My son said, 'I'm going home.' Then, [Barkley] said, 'Make my day,'" Shelia says. "So my son stepped back, and [Barkley] tased him. He fell to the ground and was hollering and screaming, 'Mama. Mama. Oh, Mama.' And he was holding his chest."
Shocked, Shelia turned to Goss and asked, "Why did he tase my son?"
Goss looked at her, she says, "and next thing I knew, I was being picked up and just thrown in between a building and some bushes."
SayKwan, then a fifteen-year-old who had traveled to Bentwood that day with his grandmother, says he saw Shelia hit the ground and was concerned that she might have been seriously injured. So he asked Southerland if he could tend to her—a move that prompted the officer, according to him and eyewitness accounts, to tase him as well.
"It all happened too fast. When it happened, it just, it was just painful," he says. "They are here to protect and serve, and that's not what they did."
"He fell to the ground holding his chest saying, 'Grandma. Grandma,'" Shelia says. "Next thing I know, they put the tase on him again and just left it there. He was laying there, just kickin' and cryin'. I knew I couldn't go to him because they wouldn't even let me up off the ground."
All three members of the Alston family were charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Their attorney, Ian Mance of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, says the police tried to include another charge of inciting a riot, but a magistrate refused to allow it.
Shelia was distraught, worried that, as someone who had worn a badge in two states, the charges alone would damage her reputation. So after she made bail and went to the ER for treatment of lacerations on her arms and a severe ankle sprain, she decided to take action. She made her case to the state NAACP, and the organization set her up with attorneys from the SCSJ who, during a meeting with then-assistant district attorney Shamieka Rhinehart, made it clear that the Alstons were ready to fight.
Mance recalls telling Rhinehart, recently elected as a district court judge, that "we were gonna fight every charge and that we were gonna fill the courtroom if need be."
He asked her to tell the officers that "if they intended to give testimony about what happened, that we would be vigorously cross-examining them and recording that testimony and using it as the basis of a later civil suit if it needed to come to that," Mance says. Shortly afterward, he says, the charges were dismissed.
(Rhinehart told the INDY Monday that she did not recall that meeting but had no reason to believe Mance was lying.)
But for Shelia, the case was far from over. Her family filed excessive-force complaints against the DPD, which prompted an internal investigation. Only one of the officers, Southerland, was found to have used excessive force; a letter sent to SayKwan's mother, Jennifer Augello, said Southerland received a "verbal reprimand." Claims against Barkley and Goss were not sustained.
This finding, Mance says, came despite testimony from an eyewitness corroborating the Alstons' story—an elderly woman whose name the INDY is withholding because she claims that, after the complaints were filed, DPD officers threatened her granddaughter.
The Alstons then requested a hearing before the Civilian Review Board, a council made up of nine local residents. That hearing was granted, but before it was held, Barkley "[rolled] up to Bentwood deep and [told] people to keep their mouths shut or else," says a Bentwood resident who asked not to be identified. Barkley, a Durham officer since 1997, told Montsay he "might disappear one day," Montsay and Shelia say—which Montsay took seriously enough to move out of Durham.
When the CRB finally met, a city attorney intervened and told the board not to consider the eyewitness testimony, Mance says. (The City Attorney's Office did not respond to requests for comment.) According to a News & Observer report from 2015, the CRB, which was created in 1998, had received fifty-four appeals but granted only four hearings by the time the Alston case came around.
"The review board is a joke," Shelia says. "I felt like my attorney had a lot of good stuff, but when we would say something, [Rehberg] would object. And they didn't want to look at the [elderly witness's] affidavit or anything of that nature. I kept saying, 'Give me a lie detector. We're not lying about what happened. We didn't resist arrest. We didn't raise a hand. We didn't get loud. We didn't do nothing.'"
The CRB ultimately voted 6–3 to affirm that the DPD's internal investigation was handled properly. Despite that, the Alstons say, Barkley wouldn't leave them alone.
SayKwan, who says he has been threatened by Barkley in the years since the incident, still wears scars from the Taser on his torso and arm. But it's the psychological trauma he endured that day that concerns his mother. In fact, Augello has grown so fearful about Barkley potentially harming her son that she's trying to find him a place to live out of town. She recalls a conversation that unfolded between SayKwan and Barkley outside her house, during which Barkley "made it clear" that he was "out to get my son."
"He's been to my home several times," Augello says. "He's threatened to search my home because my son is on probation [for robbery], said that he could come in my home whenever he wants to and search my home. One time, they were out there talking, and he told SayKwan, 'You look like you getting ready to run.' And my son is like, 'What are you talking about? I'm standing here.' He was like, 'If you wanna run, you think just because I'm fat and I'm old that I can't catch you. But I don't have to run.' And then he patted his gun. He said, 'I don't have to run. My friend here will catch you.' So I'm standing right there and I say, 'Are you threatening my son?' He said, 'It's not a threat. It's a promise.'"
"Even now, with us coming forward, that's still something we have to keep in our minds," Sheila says. "Will Barkley try to retaliate, thinking that if he hushes us up, there is no story? He's cocky. He's condescending. I think he sees an opportunity to take advantage of a community. I think his badge and his gun makes him feel like he can do what he wants to do."
The INDY has requested an interview with Barkley, but last week a department spokesman said that was "unlikely to occur at this point."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Disorderly Conduct."