Durham police officer used excessive force during woman’s arrest

mschultz@newsobserver.comFebruary 27, 2013 


Stephanie Nickerson of Chapel Hill, at the center of a police brutality claim in Durham, gets a hug from Nia Wilson while the Rev. Curtis Gatewood with the NAACP, left, shakes hands with Daryl Atkinson, Nickerson's attorney, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, after the Durham County District Attorney's office dropped charges against Nickerson.

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— A former Durham police officer accused of beating a woman he arrested last year used excessive force, according to the results of an internal police investigation released Wednesday.

Cpl. B.D. Schnee resigned from the Durham Police Department on Jan. 18 amid mounting public protests by supporters of Stephanie Nickerson, the Chapel Hill woman Schnee arrested Oct. 28 while responding to a noise complaint.

Police announced Wednesday that their investigation found Schnee used “more force than was necessary” but found insufficient evidence to prove Nickerson’s claim she was arrested without cause.

Police Chief Jose Lopez said the incident does not reflect how his department operates.

“This is not a pattern of our culture,” he said in an interview. “This is not something we tolerate.”

Efforts to reach Nickerson were unsuccessful, but one of her attorneys said the police findings are mixed.

“We’re encouraged that the Durham Police Department came to a decision that we already knew” on the question of the use of force, said Daryl Atkinson, a staff attorney with the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Justice.

But Atkinson said he was disappointed that police found insufficient evidence to prove that Nickerson’s charges of resisting arrest and assault on an officer were unwarranted, especially after the district attorney’s office dropped them in January.

He said he was disappointed also that police have not addressed Nickerson’s claim that she remained in the Durham County jail from 3 to 11 a.m. without medical attention.

Schnee broke Nickerson’s nose, gave her a black eye and busted her lip, and she went to the hospital immediately after getting out of jail, Atkinson said.

Lopez said Nickerson didn’t complain about that to police.

Noise complaint

Schnee was one of three officers who responded to noise complaint at an outdoor party.

According to her supporters, Nickerson told the hostess she did not have to let officers in the house because they did not have a warrant. That’s when, she maintains, Schnee threw her to the ground and started punching her in the face.

Lopez said he could not describe what the department thinks happened that night because of state privacy laws.

He said he has not spoken with Nickerson, nor did he speak with Schnee about it during the investigation.

He also said he did not ask the officer to resign.

“No, I never ask anyone to resign,” he said. “People know what they did or what they did not do. It comes up to them. They know if they’re culpable what’s going to happen, especially if (the offense) is terminable in nature.”

Using excessive force could be a firing circumstance in some situations, Lopez said.

Charges dropped

Atkinson said Nickerson would consider filing a civil suit, as well as an appeal to the city’s Civilian Police Review Board, which reviews complaints against police. The board could overrule the police finding that there was insufficient evidence to prove Nickerson was arrested without cause. The board’s hearing would be public, he said.

Although Lopez said the case was unusual for the department, Atkinson said it may not be.

“I can understand the chief having that opinion,” he said. “It is something we’re hearing more and more from the citizens of Durham. That’s why it’s very important to have some form of checks and balances. The jury’s still out.”

Nickerson has not spoken publicly, and Atkinson said he has advised her not to.

In a statement attributed to Nickerson read at a rally in January, she said she felt afraid and hopeless that night.

“I felt broken, and I didn’t have the first clue how to put myself back together again,” the statement read.

Schultz: 919-932-2003

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