Marchers petition for investigations

Published 6:32 pm Saturday, July 28, 2012

Supporters of Keith Small rallied at the Beaufort County Courthouse Saturday. Small was hospitalized last month after an attempted arrest by local law enforcement. (WDN Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

More than 100 people converged on the Beaufort County Courthouse on Saturday to rally in support of Keith Maurice Small, the man injured last month during an attempted arrest by investigators with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.

Organizers called for investigations at the local, state and federal level.

Wearing white T-shirts bearing Small’s image and the slogan “Because we care,” the crowd marched with a Washington police escort to the courthouse on Second Street from the intersection of Van Norden and Fifth streets, where Small’s injuries occurred.

From the courthouse steps, community leaders spoke to the crowd in the blocked-off street below. Speakers at the peaceful gathering included local Southern Christian Leadership Conference president and former Washington police detective sergeant Joe Boston, North Carolina SCLC President Bennie Rountree, his assistant, Dr. James Murray, and march organizer Claudia Stokes.

Organizers said the purpose of the rally was twofold: to support Small and his family and to bring awareness to what some believe was the use of excessive force by local law enforcement.

“I feel like it’s just injustice … like it was a lot of unnecessary force that was taken,” said Tonya Peele, who attended the rally and grew up with Small.

Small has been hospitalized since the June 6 incident in which investigators with the sheriff’s office narcotics unit interrupted an alleged drug deal between Small and another man.

The sheriff’s office denies any wrongdoing in the incident.

The original statement released by the sheriff’s office said Small fought with arresting officers before choking on a plastic bag containing marijuana and another containing crack-cocaine, both of which he had attempted to swallow.

“(Small) was resisting up until we got him handcuffed,” said Lt. Josh Shiflett, who was at the scene. “As soon as we realized he was having trouble breathing, we began life-saving measures: back thrusts, Heimlich maneuver and chest compressions.”

Washington EMS personnel later forcibly removed the bag of crack-cocaine from Small’s throat before he was transported to Vidant Beaufort Hospital, then airlifted to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville.

Maj. Kenneth Watson, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said an internal investigation found no evidence of misconduct. At the time of the event, the Northeastern District of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and district attorney’s office for the Judicial 2nd District declined to run parallel investigations, Watson said.

Beaufort County NAACP Vice President James Smallwood said Small’s resultant injuries — a crushed windpipe and bruises on his back and chest — indicate excessive violence was used during the attempted arrest.

Smallwood, Boston, Stokes, along with Washington Park resident Tim Melton, sat down with Watson, Shiflett, Deputy Kent Hill, Chief Assistant District Attorney Tom Anglim and attorney Chris Geis, counsel for the sheriff’s office, to discuss their concerns about the incident and sheriff’s office arrest procedure. At the meeting, Watson turned over copies of the original press release, incident reports, a CD of sheriff’s office standard operating procedure and statements from paramedics called to the scene, as well as Tyrell Blount, the other man involved in the alleged drug deal with Small.

Stokes said an investigation into the incident by an outside agency is required to bring the community the answers it needs. At Saturday’s march, volunteers collected petition signatures calling for a third-party investigation of the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office and individuals within the sheriff’s office narcotics unit. The petition, which also calls for a public apology by the sheriff’s office, will be circulated today at area churches, according to Boston.

“We will be submitting it to Tom Anglim,” said Boston. “We are going to carry it up to the state level, to the State Bureau of Investigation.”

According to Watson, the sheriff’s office would willingly cooperate with any investigation by an outside agency, should that happen at the request of the district attorney’s office.

“If the DA’s office chooses to do that, we will participate fully,” Watson said. “We have nothing to hide.”