Saraland officials are standing behind their police officers in the face of growing backlash from a viral video of a woman being arrested in a Waffle House restaurant over the weekend.
The video, which shows three white officers arresting a black woman, has made its way around the country and has prompted allegations of excessive force and racial disparity.
The video shows the arrest of Chikesia Clemons, who was dining at the Waffle House with two friends shortly after 2 a.m. on Sunday, April 22. According to Clemons’ version of events, an employee called the police after a verbal altercation over an additional charge for plastic utensils.
Her family has claimed when Clemons asked for information about how to file a complaint with the Waffle House corporate office, employees called 911 and the Saraland Police Department responded.
Cell phone footage captured by Canita Adams shows Clemons speaking with one of the officers, who has one hand on her shoulder and another on her arm. He appears to be trying to remove her from a seat in the restaurant’s waiting area but with some resistance.
After a break in the footage, the video jumps to Clemons being wrestled to the ground by two officers, who spend several seconds trying to turn her on her stomach to put handcuffs on her.
In the scuffle, Clemons’ breasts became exposed over the top of her shirt — something that has been widely criticized online and is likely the reason why many uncensored videos of the incident were pulled down from certain social media platforms.
An officer asked Adams for help covering Clemons up but she refused. Eventually, an unidentified male assisted Clemons.
Many have also raised an issue with an officer’s comment to Clemons while trying to restrain her.
When she asked, “What are you doing?” one of the officers is heard saying, “I’m about to break your arm, that’s what I’m about to do.”
SPD claims that was made “as a cause and effect statement, not a threat.”
Clemons was ultimately taken to the Saraland municipal jail and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, according to a statement from the SPD. However, police have still not released a mugshot or any press statements detailing Clemons’ charges.
City officials are continuing to deal with the fallout as outrage online and within the city has grown. By the time the SPD held its first press conference about the incident, the story had been picked up by several national news outlets and video of Clemons’ arrest had been viewed millions of times on social media.
The Mobile chapter of the NAACP was quick to respond, calling an emergency meeting just hours after the incident occurred. In a press statement, Chapter President David Smith drew compared Clemons’ treatment to the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks last week after an employee thought they were loitering.
“We felt it was important for our members to get a first-hand account of the incident, which has now gone viral on social media locally and across the country,” Smith said. “When incidents like this happen in our own backyard, it is incumbent upon the local NAACP to take a closer look and move the matter to whatever level is appropriate.”
At the same meeting, Clemons’ mother, Chiquitta Clemons-Howard, said she was “repulsed” by what she saw in the video and said the family plans “to seek some type of justice.”
“This is our community, and our children should be able to go anywhere in Mobile, Saraland, Daphne, Spanish Fort or wherever. They have the same rights as anybody else,” she said. “We already have to look out for our boys. Now we have to look out for our girls, too?”
Despite the outcry online, Public Safety Director J.C. West and Saraland Mayor Howard Rubenstein are standing by the responding officers’ actions and the reason for their response that morning. They say the evidence shows that there’s more to the story than what was caught on Adams’ cell phone video.
Though the investigation isn’t officially closed, one SPD representative said the department was “not choosing to take any action at this time” against the three officers involved.
“The facts as we understand them at this point, I believe they speak for themselves,” Rubenstein said. “I remain totally supportive of our officers and the Saraland Police Department.”
West said an internal investigation began shortly after Clemons was arrested, and Detective Collette Little shared some of the early results of that inquiry at a press conference Monday afternoon, which included surveillance footage taken from the restaurant.
In that footage, Clemons, Adams and an unidentified man are seen entering the Waffle House and sitting down. But shortly after arriving, things escalate as a verbal confrontation appears to break out between Clemons, Adams and some of the employees. Clemons is seen standing up and then leaning over the partition into the workers’ area.
Little said the group was asked to leave around this time, and the surveillance footage shows everyone but Clemons walking toward the door and out of the restaurant. Clemons is then seen walking around before eventually approaching the cash register.
Police say the group was asked to leave because they appeared to be intoxicated and at least one of them had allegedly brought in an outside beverage the staff believed to be alcoholic — an assumption that seems to be corroborated by recordings of the call police received from the Waffle House staff that morning.
“We have customers… they came in with alcohol and they told them they couldn’t drink it and they’re not listening,” the employee said. “They’re drunk and disorderly.”
Detective Brian Mims said witness statements suggest the group “smelled of alcohol” and appeared to be intoxicated. He said Clemons was “being loud and using profanity toward the employees,” according to interviews he claims to have conducted with six employees and one customer.
He noted two of those witnesses were African-American and four were female, but said Clemons and Adams did not respond to requests to contribute their version of events to SPD’s investigation.
“They told the employees, ‘I’ll come over this counter and beat your fucking ass,’ and ‘bitch I’m going to have your job. You ain’t gonna be here tomorrow,’” Mims said. “According to one of the witnesses, Waffle House personnel were also told, ‘Bitch, you don’t know what I got going on. I may have a gun. I may have anything. I may come back and shoot this place up if I need to.’”
Mims said witnesses also stated Clemons refused to comply with commands given to her on multiple occasions, and Little said officers followed standard procedures by attempting to handcuff Clemons behind her back. Yet, SPD officials declined to release the name or rank of any of the officers involved in Clemons’ arrest.
When asked, a representative said police safety trumped the public’s right to known that information, even though the department downplayed questions about officers in the now-viral video allegedly receiving death threats.
Messages to Adams and Clemons’ mother did not immediately receive a response, so it’s unclear what, if any, action the family plans to take at this time. Though, According to Adams’ Facebook page, a GoFundMe page has already been set up to “raise money for legal fees and lawyers.”
Online, many have taken their frustrations out on Waffle House, with hundreds if not thousands of people including #boycottwafflehouse in social media posts about Clemons’ arrest on Facebook and Twitter. Many are calling for actions to be taken against the employee who called the police and the officers involved.
So far, though, Waffle House has appeared to stand by its employees and the SPD. Though a spokesperson for the company’s Southeast region did not immediately return phone calls from Lagniappe reporters, Waffle House released a statement on Twitter late Monday morning.
“We are still obtaining and reviewing information. However, the information we have received at this point differs significantly from what has reportedly been attributed to Ms. Clemons. After reviewing our security video of the incident and eye witness accounts, police intervention was appropriate,” the statement reads. “The Saraland Police Department is conducting its own investigation. We take this matter very seriously and think it is important for all those involved or interested in the matter to exercise caution until the facts are developed.”