A man lying on a porch screams at the top of his lungs and then moans from the pain of a stun gun being pressed into his back, begging the Allentown police officers surrounding him to let him up — a scene captured on cellphone video.
His shouts drew a crowd and, like several others, Eli Heckman started shooting the video of the Oct. 27 fracas along N. Front Street in Allentown.
On Heckman’s video, a police officer comes over to him and orders him to stop, and Heckman responds that he believes he has the right to shoot video on a public sidewalk.
According to Heckman’s civil rights lawsuit recently filed in federal court, Heckman walked away from the officer, later identified as Jason Ammary, but “Ammary responded by grabbing and shoving [Heckman] in an extremely rough manner.”
Heckman, who seeks damages in excess of $150,000, says Ammary twisted his arms behind his back and smashed his cellphone on the ground.
The suit — and Heckman’s video of the incident obtained by The Morning Call — shows the tension between citizens and law enforcement that has been playing out nationwide as cellphone videos have become central in the debate over allegations of police misconduct.
It was one year ago this week that a cellphone video showed Michael Brown’s body lying on a street in Ferguson, Mo., hours after the unarmed teen was allegedly gunned down by a police officer.
In April, another cellphone video showed Baltimore police officers shackling Freddie Gray before putting him in the back of a police van, where he later suffered a broken back and died.
Also in April, another video caught a South Carolina police officer shooting Walter Scott in the back as he ran away. A North Charleston police officer was charged with Scott’s murder after the video surfaced.
In Heckman’s suit, his attorney, Joshua Karoly, argues the incident occurred because Allentown does not properly train police officers and tolerates their misconduct. Specific training on how officers should respond to citizens who video police conduct is needed, the suit states.
“The city had knowledge that due to … nationally publicized incidents of its use to record public actions of police officers, especially those appearing to commit civil rights abuses, that a citizen’s use of a cell phone to capture public police conduct would occur within the city of Allentown, but failed to develop and maintain any policies, customs, rules or regulations regarding same,” the suit states.
Besides Ammary and 10 unnamed officers, the city is also named in the suit. Allentown police Chief Joel Fitzgerald referred questions about the suit to the city solicitor’s office. Attorney John Morgenstern, who is handling the case for the city, did not return a phone message.
Karoly declined to answer questions about the case Tuesday.
“The complaint and the video speak for themselves,” Karoly said
The incident that led to Heckman’s arrest happened around 8:20 p.m. on what appears to be a crowded corner in Center City.
Court records say police were in the area of Fourth and Liberty streets looking for two men suspected of committing a robbery a few blocks away. They stopped Alexander A. Aron, 23, who was allegedly walking near his home at 502 N. Fourth St.
Aron, who was drinking a bottle of beer, was “uncooperative” with police and smelled of alcohol, court records say. Police say he refused to tell officers his name, then began to tense up and flail his arms when four officers tried to handcuff him.
Aron was charged with resisting arrest, simple assault, disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. His attorney, Eric Dowdle, said he’s looking forward to fighting the charges when the case goes to trial next month. During the scuffle, police reports say, Aron kicked an officer in the face.
Heckman’s video does not show any of this. It begins with Aron facedown on a porch, surrounded by a group of police officers and bystanders. Several people are pleading with the officers to stop hurting the man as his cries grow louder.
Dowdle said his client was thrown to the porch by the officers after he went into the home to get his identification. He said Aron was hit with a stun gun six times even though he was screaming in pain.
Dowdle said he and his client are grateful that Heckman was shooting video, and believes the community should see it.
“The public has to see what’s going on,” Dowdle said. “The fact of the matter is that this stuff happens in Allentown, and it’s going to continue to happen unless people pay attention.”
Tod Burke, a former Maryland police officer who now teaches criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia, said police officers are forced to make split-second decisions about whether to stop someone from using their cellphones to video a crime scene.
“Are you posing a danger to police and citizens by recording? Are you getting too close? And is that even a cellphone in your hand? As a police officer, all I may know for sure is that you’re doing something that’s distracting me from my work,” Burke said.
A right to video police?
After getting the order to stop using his cellphone, the video shows, Heckman told Ammary that he believed he was allowed to film on a public sidewalk.
Court decisions lean in Heckman’s favor, though if some police officials have their way, that could change.
This week, Boston police Commissioner William B. Evans called for laws regulating citizen videotaping of police, saying he believed it was interfering with officers’ work.
It was a Boston case that first clarified the law that allows people to record police officers doing their job. In 2011 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in favor of Boston lawyer Simon Glik, who sued the city after he was arrested for using his cellphone to record police officers punching another man on Boston Common.
Glik was charged with violating Massachusetts’ wiretap laws, which prohibit secret interception of oral communication. Since Glik was openly recording the police by holding up his cellphone, the courts ruled that he had a First Amendment right to observe and gather information about what the police were doing in a public place.
Since 2011, numerous courts have upheld so-called citizen journalists’ rights to video police in public, although there are some limits. Citizens may not interfere with an investigation, or record police involved in undercover investigations.
During the confrontation, Heckman’s video shows, Ammary told Heckman to stop recording and “get off the block.”
“I’m walking, I’m walking,” Heckman replies. According to the lawsuit, he had dropped his arm holding the phone to his side before the officer grabbed him.
Heckman was charged with disorderly conduct and failing to disperse under official order. Both charges were later dismissed, court records show.
Heckman claims in the lawsuit that Ammary used foul language while handcuffing him and driving him to the police station.
“Why did you have to videotape? Now you’re [expletive],” the suit states.
The suit is just the latest in a string of eight brutality claims filed against Allentown police since September, and the second in which Ammary is named.
A federal judge in August gave the green light for a jury to decide a lawsuit over a Sept. 29, 2011, incident outside Dieruff High School, in which Ammary is accused of using excessive force by shooting a 14-year-old girl in the groin with a stun gun.
Heckman, 32, of W. Tilghman Street has had numerous run-ins with police, court records show. His most recent conviction is a 2009 drug offense for which he served two years’ probation. He’s awaiting trial for retail theft, according to court records.
Heckman’s lawyer wrote a letter to city and police officials complaining about the incident and attached a copy of the video, the suit states.
“Rather than the city and department being appreciative of being provided the information and taking appropriate disciplinary action to better their police force, the department verbally advised that they did an ‘investigation’ and decided that the complaint was ‘unfounded,'” the suit says.
Cellphone videos can be used to resolve such issues between citizens and law enforcement, said Brian A. Jackson, director of the Safety and Justice program at the RAND Corporation, a global nonprofit policy think tank.
“Studies have shown that cameras can provide information that helps to resolve disagreements over events — in favor of police in the case of spurious complaints, and for citizens when other evidence is not available to support their claims of mistreatment,” he said.
Video of Heckman’s arrest is available on The Morning Call: http://www.mcall.com/videos/mc-exclusive-video-watch-eli-heckmans-arrest-warning-explicit-language-20150811-premiumvideo.html