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Woman who filmed arrest of person near Whole Foods says Richmond police assaulted her. Police say she injured herself.
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Woman who filmed arrest of person near Whole Foods says Richmond police assaulted her. Police say she injured herself.

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Khalah Sabbakan explains her altercation with police

Khalah Sabbakhan was walking to Whole Foods on West Broad Street on Oct. 4 when she encountered two police officers speaking to a woman who appeared to be homeless, resting on a bench behind the historic Sauer factory with two overstuffed red tote bags.

After a brief conversation with the officers, Sabbakhan, a 45-year-old Richmond native, pointed her phone at them and hit record. Just over five minutes later, she would be face down on the ground, bleeding and in handcuffs.

Sabbakhan says police forced her to the ground and left her with cuts, bruises and an injured elbow. Police say she injured herself.

Sabbakhan’s video and one taken by another witness who started recording after hearing her pleading for help show the moments just before and after she was arrested. Her video stops when an officer grabs the phone from her hand, and the witness video picks up with her handcuffed on the ground.

“Please help me ... I’m hurting,” Sabbakhan can be heard saying in the second video. “You dragged me to the ground and beat me up.”

“No, you did that to yourself,” one of the officers replied.

In Sabbakhan’s video, officers threatened to arrest Sabbakhan and told her to stop offering help to the woman because they were placing the woman under arrest for a warrant regarding a separate trespassing charge.

When Sabbakhan, who repeatedly told officers her concerns were about their treatment of someone in need, asked to see the warrant, one of the officers walked away to ask the property manager to ban her from the property.

The officers said the 2000 block of West Marshall Street — including the benches, sidewalk and road — are private property.

Less than a minute after returning with the property managers, an officer approached Sabbakhan, who had backed away from officers and was standing in the empty street, the video shows. He says only “stop” as he reaches for her phone and the video abruptly ends.

Sabbakhan says that’s when the officers slammed her to the ground and put her in handcuffs.

“I had a heart monitor on. They pressed it into the ground. My head and face was being scraped against the concrete. My arm was in extreme pain. Both officers were twisting it,” she said during an interview at her home in Southern Barton Heights earlier this month. “I felt like I was going to die.”

Police said Sabbakhan was arrested for interfering with an investigation and trespassing and that officers weren’t responsible for her injuries. Her trial on charges of trespassing and obstruction of justice is set for Monday.

The eight-minute witness video shows at least five more officers arrive as both Sabbakhan and the woman who had been sleeping on the bench were arrested.

“I can’t imagine it’s necessary to use such force, pinning a woman to the ground with two men twice her size, to the point that it shears some of the skin from her face and causes her to bleed,” said the witness, who requested anonymity out of fear of harassment by police or others. “Watching it felt like assault to me.”

The incident occurred as the city continues to debate how best to improve police accountability after weeks of intense protests last year following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

As the proposed creation of a civilian-led police review department is still pending action by local government officials, the arrests last month raise questions about transparency, use of force and oversight of the police.

Eli Coston, a co-chair of the city’s Civilian Review Board Task Force, reviewed the videos at the request of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Coston said that while it appears the officers did not violate department policy or criminal law in how they arrested Sabbakhan, he still found the incident “troubling.”

“It seemed to me like the officers were largely annoyed that she was making the situation more difficult,” Coston said. “I can envision a scenario where those officers would have de-escalated the situation and no one would have been hurt or charged.”

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A spokesman for the Richmond Police Department said officers went to the recently redeveloped Sauer Center for a trespassing call just before 9 a.m. on Oct. 4.

As officers were questioning the woman on the bench after a property manager asked her to leave, Sabbakhan began “interfering” in their investigation and was subsequently arrested for trespassing and obstruction of justice, said RPD spokesman James Mercante.

Police did not say why the officers used force when arresting Sabbakhan, if she or the other woman posed a risk to public safety, or whether department leadership reviewed the incident to see if force was used improperly.

A YouTube video posted by Sabbakhan last month, which has been viewed more than 560 times as of Sunday evening, shows her calmly asking the officers whether they were detaining the woman — whom Sabbakhan says she did not know. The officers grew agitated as they explained they had a warrant for the woman’s arrest on a prior trespassing charge and that Sabbakhan would also be arrested if she kept asking the woman to leave with her.

“As a result of her actions, she sustained a minor injury” and was taken to the hospital for medical treatment before going to jail, Mercante said.

Sabbakhan, who was not charged with resisting arrest, said she was bruised and bloodied, and that she can’t fully bend or raise her elbow without causing pain.

A forensic medical report she obtained the day after the arrest, which she allowed The Times-Dispatch to review, says there is a possibility of an “occult radial head fracture” in her elbow that’s not detectable by X-ray. Sabbakhan said she was treated afterward by other doctors, but does not have records from those visits.

She said she continues to experience pain daily from injuries stemming from the arrest.

Sabbakhan said she avoids assuming the worst of individual police officers, but that it was the first time she personally experienced how police can violate the unspoken societal agreement that gives law enforcement officers power to use violent or deadly force against people, but only to defend life and property from immediate danger.

She said she wonders whether the two officers, who are white, treated her with hostility because she is Black, noting that the other witness, who is white, filmed her arrest without the officers arresting her.

“I just questioned them,” she said. “I’ve never been in a situation like that. ... I never expected to be mistreated.”

“Reasonable force,” according to police department policy, may be used in response to resistance to police action or a threat to human life after “reasonable alternatives have been exhausted.”

“Based upon the circumstances of the situation, only that force which is reasonable and necessary to accomplish lawful objectives, while preventing injury and while protecting the life of the officer and/or others, shall be applied,” the department policy says.

A new police review department recommended by the Civilian Review Board Task Force

would have an 11-member civilian review board to hear complaints of officer misconduct and dole out discipline. The task force has also proposed letting the civilian review department offer policy recommendations for local police.

“Should the CRB be implemented with the ability to make policy recommendations ... this could be a key opportunity to ask if this is how we want situations like this handled,” Coston said.

Sabbakhan’s whole body trembles when she talks about the still-healing injuries to her head and elbow a month after the arrest.

When she appeared at the John Marshall Courts Building for a hearing in her case earlier this month, she had a bandage on her head, a sling stabilizing her right elbow and a fresh hospital bracelet on her wrist.

Sabbakhan, a former teacher who is on disability because of a traumatic brain injury and other injuries she suffered when she was hit by a truck several years ago, said she has had difficulty processing what happened.

She said the head wound became infected because it was not treated at the hospital or city jail immediately after her arrest, and that she went to an emergency room after she was released.

“It felt like the whole right side of my head was exploding” when the officers put her head in the street and pressed a knee in her back, she said. “Everything is foggy. I feel off more than I did before.”

She said she has talked to police officials twice after the arrest and asked about filing a complaint. She said officials asked her to show them medical records, but that she has not delivered them yet.

“This is so hard for me,” Sabbakhan said. “I was already dealing with so much before this, recovering from a head injury. ... It’s just overwhelming.”

Tracy Walker, a spokesperson for the police department, said no public complaints have been filed about the arrest.

The police department did not answer a series of questions about how Sabbakhan suffered her injuries, whether the arrest was classified as a use-of-force incident, or whether the officers were disciplined.

“The department is following its standard protocol and review process to assess all aspects of this case,” Walker said.

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Sabbakhan said she worries about people who are homeless, having volunteered with community nonprofit organizations throughout her life, such as the Y, YWCA and Feed More. She suspected that the woman on the bench was in trouble that morning.

A criminal complaint filed by a property manager against the woman on Sept. 29, a week earlier, says she vandalized property and threatened to “get a gun and shoot” him after she was asked to leave. The complaint does not say where the incident took place, but Walker said it was also in the 2000 block of West Marshall Street.

The video Sabbakhan took on Oct. 4 shows her repeatedly asking the woman to come with her to a shelter. The police kept saying the woman was under arrest, though they had not placed her in handcuffs yet.

“I’m trying to help someone who is in need,” Sabbakhan said to the officers.

“She’s not in need,” one of the officers replied. “You need to quit telling her to come with you because she’s not coming with you. She’s coming with us.”

A city property map shows most of the shopping center property, including the road in the 2000 block of West Marshall Street, is owned by Sauer Properties, which recently converted old industrial buildings there into office space that CarMax and SingleStone Consulting has leased.

Additional development phases are being planned to create “a vibrant place to work, live, and play [in a] 24-hour community with social and professional amenities,” according to a company website.

Sauer Properties did not respond to voicemail messages. A representative for the company who appeared in court earlier this month declined to comment or refer questions to the property owner or another representative.

In the video of the arrests captured by the other witness, the same officer who knocked the phone from Sabbakhan’s hand warned the witness to stay back as she tried to get closer for a better view of what was happening.

“Ma’am, just so you know, this is private property. And that’s what happened to her,” he said, gesturing to Sabbakhan as she continued to cry. “I’m perfectly fine with you videotaping, I don’t mind, we have it on body camera as well.”

The Times-Dispatch filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the officers’ body camera footage from the incident, but the Richmond Police Department has not yet made a copy of it available nor allowed a reporter to review it in person.

When Sabbakhan noticed someone filming her arrest, she asked the officers why they were treating her differently.

Authorities asked Sabbakhan for her address after she was arrested. She told them the street and number of her house near one of the city’s largest public housing communities.

“They said I had no business there if I live near Gilpin Court,” she said. “Why would they say that? There are no markets or anything around this area. Besides, I have a right to go where I would like to go.”

“I don’t know why they treated me the way they did. It was cruel and, to me, it seemed unlawful,” Sabbakhan said. “That homeless woman was being mistreated and harassed.”

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