Law enforcement officers in Rowan County pulled a 66-year-old librarian from her car by her hair, threw her to the ground, and tore her rotator cuff during a 2019 traffic stop, a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges.
The woman, Stephanie Bottom of Atlanta, said she was driving to a funeral and posing no threat to the officers when they stopped her on Interstate 85 for driving 80 mph in a 70 mph zone and failing to heed blue lights. Once officers stopped her car, they approached her with guns drawn, she said.
Bottom, who is Black, contended in the lawsuit that the officers from the Salisbury Police Department and Rowan County Sheriff’s office used excessive force, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The suit was filed in federal court in the Middle District of North Carolina.
Bodycam video shows Bottom crying after she was handcuffed.
“What have I done wrong?” she asked the officers.
“Ma’am, there were three police cars behind you for about 10 miles,” one of the officers replied.
The video shows Bottom telling officers she was in pain and needed medical help. About 11 minutes after she was stopped, an officer told her he was “going to have EMS check her out.” Paramedics took her to a nearby hospital.
One of the officers named in the lawsuit, former Salisbury Police Department officer Devin Barkalow, declined to talk about the complaint, referring a reporter to the department. Barkalow, who was hired by the department in 2015, left the agency to take a position with federal law enforcement in February 2020, according to Linda McElroy, a spokeswoman for the city of Salisbury.
McElroy said city officials would not comment on pending litigation. But in an email to the Charlotte Observer, she said, “the Salisbury Police always strives for positive interactions with our residents and visitors, including in cases where we may suspect criminal activity. “
The other officers named in the lawsuit could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Bottom said the injury she suffered at the hands of officers kept her out of work — and without a paycheck — for eight months. Beyond that, she said, the incident terrified her.
“I was shaking in fear,” Bottom said in an interview with the Charlotte Observer. “I was getting ready to die. … When they grabbed me and threw me to the ground, that’s when the real terror struck me that I was going to die.”
Bottom, now 68, pleaded guilty to failing to heed blue lights. The other two charges filed against her — speeding and resisting arrest — were dismissed.
Filed just a day after a Minneapolis jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, Bottom’s lawsuit comes at a time when police interactions with the public are under close scrutiny.
In another federal lawsuit filed earlier this month, Danielle Helena Downing, a Black driver from Charlotte, contended a Mooresville police officer smashed her car window during a traffic stop, then threw her to the pavement on top of the shards of window glass, leaving her with cuts and other injuries that required hospital treatment.
Bottom said she was driving to Raleigh for her great aunt’s funeral on the night of May 30, 2019. She said she was playing loud music inside her car and initially didn’t realize that police were trying to stop her. Once she did realize police were behind her, she said, she tried to find a place to pull off the road — “somewhere safe where I’d be around lights and people.”
This, her lawsuit alleges, is what happened next:
While following Bottom, Officer Barkalow referred to Bottom by several derogatory terms that were recorded by his body camera, according to the suit.
Another officer then used spike strips to immobilize her car, which came to a stop on the highway median. Barkalow and another officer named in the lawsuit, Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Benfield, then approached Bottom with guns drawn, screaming at her to exit her car.
“Within five seconds of arriving at her drivers’ side door with guns drawn, Defendants Benfield and Barkalow grabbed Plaintiff by her arm and hair and threw her from her Toyota Sequoia to the ground,” the lawsuit alleges.
Once Bottom was face down on the ground, officers tried to twist her arms behind her back. Bottom “shouted with pain” and told the officers to stop hurting her, saying that a previous injury prevented her from putting her arms behind her back, according to the complaint.
Barkalow forced her left arm behind her to the point where her wrist was near her neck, the suit states.
“Eventually the force applied by Defendant officers caused Plaintiff’s shoulder to “pop,” tearing her rotator cuff and causing severe injury,” the lawsuit states.
Officers searched Bottom’s car and her purse, but found nothing. All of the officers were white, Bottom said.
Another Salisbury police officer involved in the stop said “That’s good police work, baby,” according to comments recorded on his body cam. Barkalow, meanwhile, “bragged about ‘grabbing a handful of dreads,’ and said ‘at that point she earned it,’“ the lawsuit states.
Bottom said she had to have surgery to repair the tear to her rotator cuff. But she said the injury still prevents her from raising her left arm above her head, so she must rely on her right arm to do much of her book-shelving work at the library.
A search of public records in Bottom’s home county — Fulton County, Georgia — indicates she has no criminal record there.
“Ms. Bottom was peaceful at all times, and officers knew they were dealing with an elderly woman,” said Ian Mance, a lawyer with EmancipateNC who represents Bottom. “Our complaint alleges these officers had no reason to use any force, much less the level of force they employed. Ms. Bottom wasn’t even arrested.”
Another attorney representing Bottom — Scott Holmes, a lawyer for North Carolina Central University’s Civil Litigation Clinic — said the case “shows the importance of civil rights non-profit organizations and law school clinics devoted to policing the police.”
The officers, Bottom said, “need to be held accountable for what they did to me so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”