This surveillance video from a camera at Cramer School in Camden appears to show Officer Douglas Dickinson apprehending Quinzelle Bethea on Nov. 22, 2015. Bethea claims the officer punched him without justification. Source: Camden School District and attorney Patrick Geckle
CAMDEN – Quinzelle Bethea spent last Thanksgiving in a jail cell amid a nightmare that began when he encountered Camden County Police Officer Douglas Dickinson the evening of Nov. 22.
Bethea, a college student who mentors at several Camden nonprofit organizations, had expected to spend the holiday feeding homeless people at New Mickle Baptist Church, just as he did the previous Christmas and Thanksgiving.
“But it didn’t go as planned,” said then-fiancee Sade Jenkins Bethea, who married Bethea this month, “because he was, you know, incarcerated.”
Bethea’s arrest is one of 18 cases involving Dickinson that the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office has dismissed because it says the officer engaged in misconduct, including simple assault and filing false police reports. The prosecutor predicts additional cases will be dropped as the investigation continues because they’re possibly tainted by Dickinson’s actions.
The 27-year-old officer, a Haddon Township resident who was hired in July 2014 and began patrolling the city last year, has been suspended from the force without pay and now faces criminal charges.
‘Why are you punching me?’
It was around 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday when Bethea, then 23, left his great-grandmother’s East Camden home on Berkley Street and was walking alone down 29th Street, headed to the house he shared with his grandmother on 25th Street. His cellphone in his pocket, he was talking with his fiancée through an earpiece when Dickinson pulled up, alone in his patrol car.
Bethea, who plans to file a lawsuit Monday against Dickinson and the county, described what happened next:
“He starts screaming at me. I take my earpiece out. He says, ‘Stop!’ I say, ‘What am I being detained for?’ He says, ‘Get your hands out of your pockets!’ He gets out of the car. … He throws me up against the gate by Cramer Elementary School … my hands are up against the gate, he’s behind me, I’m asking him, ‘Am I being arrested?’ He’s manhandling me, grabbing my arms. I turned my head and he punched me in my face and the back of my head several times and kept hitting me while I was on the ground. I got a black eye, scratches all over my face … ‘Why are you punching me? Am I under arrest?’ He got me down on the ground and he’s screaming at me: ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ I’m screaming, ‘Help! Help!’”
Jenkins Bethea recalls her fiancé telling her a cop was following him.
“I remember him saying that he just wanted to hurry up and get to his grandmother’s house,” she said. “Then I heard the phone drop and Quinzelle screaming for help. He asked the guy, ‘Why are you punching me?’”
In his police report, Dickinson said at the time he spotted Bethea he was responding to a call from another officer “for a black male who was dressed in dark clothing that began running away from him when he attempted to stop him.” No specific crime had been committed in the neighborhood, which Dickinson noted was a “high crime” area.
“I observed a black male later identified as Quinzelle Bethea … walking down 29th Street in the direction of Mickle Street at a quickened pace,” Dickinson wrote. “Bethea matched the description of the suspect that ran away, he was dressed in dark clothing. … When Bethea observed my marked patrol vehicle, he quickly adjusted his waistband and began walking even faster. … I approached Bethea in my marked patrol vehicle and asked him to stop, he responded, ‘go (expletive) yourself I’m not the one with the gun’ and continued to walk down 29th Street. It was at this time I exited my marked patrol vehicle and again stated to Bethea to stop, however he ignored my commands and continued to walk away from me and again adjusted his waistband. … Bethea stated, ‘You got no reason to stop me man, all I’m doing is walking home.’ While Bethea was saying this to me I observed a bulge in his left pants pocket. … Based on Bethea matching the description, the proximity to the area of where (the fellow officer) called for the assist, the bulge, the fact that Bethea kept adjusting his waistband, and that he would not comply with my orders to stop, I believed that he was presently armed and dangerous.”
Dickinson could not be reached for comment Friday.
The report goes on to explain that after Bethea faced the fence for the pat-down, he failed to “interlock his fingers behind his head” and then “turned” and “pushed away.” Dickinson reported Bethea ignored his commands to stop moving, grabbed the officer’s thumb to break his hold and attempted to punch him.
A grainy, soundless, black-and-white surveillance video captured by a camera mounted at Cramer Elementary School appears to show Dickinson overtaking Bethea on foot, pushing him onto the sidewalk and possibly striking him.
“When he punched me in the face,” Bethea said, “there were no cops around. … He was punching me, beating me up, he was just hitting me.”
As more officers gathered, Bethea said, “a woman cop tried to calm me down.” He also recalls being panicked when he was told to ride in the back of a patrol car with Dickinson.
“I don’t want to be in a car with him,” Bethea recalls saying.
“Calm down, it’s protocol,” an officer replied, according to Bethea.
Bethea was taken to Cooper University Hospital in handcuffs and treated in the emergency room for injuries to his face, chest and arms. He had extensive X-rays, all the while still asking why he was being arrested, Bethea said.
At Cooper, Bethea said, he also was interviewed by Sgt. Ella Roberts of Internal Affairs. Roberts, he said, helped convince him that “police actually have integrity.”
Battered and frustrated, Bethea recalls telling her he didn’t want to file a complaint “because nothing was gonna happen.”
Roberts, Bethea said, “told me the guy was in the wrong … and said, ‘What do you mean? The prosecutor is going to have it on his desk tomorrow morning.’”
The officer who later transported him to the county jail, Bethea said, recognized him from the neighborhood and knew he was an upstanding guy. Bethea said the officer told him that Dickinson “messed up … and that between me and you, I really apologize for what happened.”
Bethea said the officer told him this wasn’t the first time something like this happened involving Dickinson. Other officers apologized too, Bethea said.
By the next morning, Bethea had been charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and obstruction of justice. Bail was set at $15,000, and he spent the next 13 days behind bars.
Not ‘a reflection’ on all Camden police?
The lawsuit Bethea’s attorney has prepared alleges the county has “tolerated” and “encouraged” and “been deliberately indifferent” to a series of actions that resulted in the use of unreasonable physical force, illegal searches, and inadequate monitoring of officers’ psychological problems. The county hasn’t done enough to stop officers from failing to follow proper procedures, the pending suit alleges.
County spokesman Dan Keashen declined to comment on Bethea’s allegations and would not say whether authorities had concerns about Dickinson’s behavior prior to the investigation that resulted in prosecutors filing charges against the officer.
Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said Dickinson’s actions are not representative of the force he leads.
He expressed gratitude that other officers and community members stepped forward to alert him about their concerns regarding Dickinson.
“We’ve created a culture,” Thomson said, “where officers hold themselves and their colleagues to the highest standard. The unfortunate actions of one officer were able to be identified by his peers, (who was) removed from the streets, and (forwarded) to the prosecutor’s office for a criminal investigation. I am proud of the officers who displayed this integrity and grateful to the community members who informed us of their concerns. … Officer Dickinson and his actions are in no way, shape or form a reflection of this organization.”
The county Police Department, created in 2013 when the old Camden City force was disbanded, had 65 excessive force complaints filed against it in 2014; last year, that number dropped to 44.
‘Why didn’t you put your hands up?’
Quinzelle Bethea’s mother, Sunnie Bethea, was frantic when told by his fiancee that something had gone very wrong the night he was arrested. When she got to Cooper Hospital, she said, law enforcement officers told her she would not be allowed to see him because he was under arrest.
She blames herself for her son questioning Dickinson. “I instilled it into him to stand up for his rights,” she said.
“He absolutely didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “He was just walking down the street. … I know how they approach me, let alone black men. But it becomes an escalation when you say I know my rights. The fact that we have this police department and we have hardly any people from our own community in it … they can’t be sensitive to us or understand the frustration of walking down the street, and you’re asking me for an ID.
“My frustration with Quin was, why didn’t you put your hands up instead of you turning and saying, ‘What did you stop me for?’”
Quinzelle Bethea spent the next 13 days in Camden County Jail after his arrest, according to county records. It wasn’t his first time being locked up for standing on principle, he said.
Bethea was arrested in 2012 along with his brother in the Landmark Lounge parking lot in Glassboro after police asked them to show identification, he said. Bethea, a passenger in the car, argued he shouldn’t have to produce his license and was charged with assaulting an officer, resisting arrest and obstruction. When the other two charges were dismissed, Bethea said, he decided to take the last one – resisting arrest – to trial; he represented himself and lost the case.
Later, when Bethea was still on probation from that conviction, he refused to pay the $200 fine on the grounds that he should never have been arrested, and spent a month in jail for that, he said.
The recent incarceration was particularly difficult. Bethea said he was allowed no visitors, phone calls or a shower for three days; slept on the floor; didn’t eat because he was vegetarian; and got no medical attention for the dislocated elbow he suffered during the confrontation with Dickinson.
Keashen, the county spokesman, said Bethea was able to shower, make telephone calls and receive visitors, and got medical followups. He acknowledged Bethea may have slept in a portable bed.
Sunnie Bethea, who knew the time and money her son’s principles had cost in the past, said she didn’t rush to bail him out until he phoned her in tears.
“I didn’t know how upset Quin was until he called me crying,” she said. “It was very, very hard. I cried, too.”
Community activist Sean Brown, who knew Bethea well from his involvement in Young Urban Leaders, which Brown directs, had heard Bethea’s version of the arrest in December and believed him. But Brown was torn about whether to go to authorities on Bethea’s behalf.
“I didn’t want to interfere,” Brown said. “I wanted to see how the system worked.”
When spring came and Bethea still faced felony charges, Brown said he felt “compelled” to share Bethea’s story with Thomson.
Shortly after that, on April 18, Bethea showed up for a hearing in Camden County Superior Court and learned all of the charges against him had been dropped.
Thomson credits Brown for reaching out and for his “continued advocacy for justice in Camden.”
The federal lawsuit prepared by Bethea’s lawyer, Patrick Geckle of Philadelphia, alleges civil rights violations.
The complaint alleges Bethea “was deprived of his right to be free from an unreasonable and unnecessary use of excessive force, illegal search, false arrest, malicious prosecution and to be secure in his person and property.” It seeks unspecified damages.
‘I used to be angry at America’
Ironically, by the time of his run-in with Dickinson, Bethea felt he’d changed.
“I used to be angry at America,” he said. “I just recently realized I could be more productive by working with children and writing programs for kids instead of trying to fight the police.”
Wallace Custis, director of the Volunteers of America Face Forward 2 youth program, hired Bethea to mentor and coach children there. Curtis calls him “a role model I want all of our kids to follow, with passion, drive and dedication.”
“In the days of slavery,” Bethea said, “if a slave was walking off a plantation, they had to present their walking papers, and if they didn’t have them, they’d be lynched …
“I always stood up for my rights, because I thought that I should be able to walk down the streets.”
Today, Bethea said, he would advise his own son, 5-year-old Quinzelle Jr., to handle a situation like his encounter with Dickinson differently than he did.
“I would tell him to know his rights but do what the cop tells you to do. Because now I know that justice works.”