VALDOSTA, GA. — A Georgia police officer captured on video body slamming and injuring a Black man who had been misidentified by police, has now been promoted.
After previously calling for the mayor’s resignation, attorneys suing the city of Valdosta in an excessive use of force by police lawsuit, Wednesday called for the police chief to resign as well, after learning about the officer's recent promotion.
In response to the calls for resignations, city leaders issued a video statement Wednesday, stating the Valdosta Police Department has a low use of force rate and mentioned forming a civilian police review board.
But the officer’s promotion came in May, three months after the incident, which has never been investigated, and the mayor said discipline for the officer has never been discussed.
They mayor went on to say city leaders felt badly about anyone being injured in an encounter with police, "regardless of who's at fault."
A city spokesperson said authorities would not be providing additional comments because of pending litigation.
The Copeland, Haugabrook and Walker law firm say their client Antonio Smith had his civil rights violated when he was wrongly identified and thrown to the ground by police.
Smith, a 46-year-old Black man, was detained after police had received a complaint about someone panhandling in the area.
Smith was thrown to the ground and suffered a broken wrist Feb. 8 by officer Billy Wheeler, after Valdosta police misidentified him as another man with an outstanding warrant. The entire incident was captured on video.
The Valdosta Daily Times has confirmed with the city that Wheeler was promoted to lieutenant in May and is still working road patrol.
Wheeler replaced a lieutenant who was terminated, said Ashlyn Johnson, city public information officer.
"Sgt. Wheeler was the next eligible employee to fill this position because he was in the 'highly promotable' band," she said. She said the band system that VPD promotions operate on includes highly promotable, promotable and not recommended.
In calling for municipal officials to step down, attorney Roy Copeland said: “There’s a direct chain of command there. The things that we have to understand about mayors and municipal governments, they have very limited power. They’re essentially a cheerleader."
Attorney Nathaniel Haugabrook II said he has spoken with law enforcement officers regarding training and was told the way Smith was “taken down” is not a standard practice in police training.
He said Wheeler handled the situation improperly.
“He should’ve inquired about what happened, what was going on, whether or not there was even a need to effectuate an arrest at that point,” Haugabrook said.
Smith was compliant during the incident with officers and was “accosted by Lt. Wheeler,” Haugabrook said.
“So the question is why was the lieutenant so aggressive towards Mr. Smith and I think we all know the answer to that,” he said.
Mayor Scott James Matheson said in an interview with The Valdosta Daily Times last week the city has not discussed disciplining any of the officers involved in the incident, including Lt. Billy Wheeler, the one who body slammed Smith to the ground.
The Valdosta-based law firm representing Smith called for Mayor Matheson to resign earlier this week.
The Rev. Fer-Rell Malone Sr., president and chief executive officer of the Justice Initiative, said he is prepared to help remove Matheson and Manahan out of their positions.
“I’m tired of begging folk to do what they’re supposed to do when we have the constitution and authority and the power to pull them out of office,” he said.
“So if the mayor doesn’t come out, we have means by which we can bring him out. If the police chief doesn’t come out, and the city (councilmen) is responsible for them, then one by one, let’s go and take care of all of them and replace them.”
He said Matheson “let the citizens of Valdosta down” by siding with the Valdosta Police Department.
Malone posed a question for Matheson.
“Given the police treatment of Antonio Smith and Kendrick Johnson and others, is Valdosta a safe place for Black people?” he asked. “As a Black man and as a father, should I view Valdosta as a place that’s safe to bring my family to vacations as I’ve actually done so many years?”
The mayor talked about his love for the police force and how news of the use of force incident has been difficult for him personally.
Matheson said in a joint statement recorded at City Hall with several members of the Valdosta City Council that transparency and accountability are goals of the VPD.
“However, we’re here today, all of us, to say that any time a citizen has an encounter with a Valdosta employee that results in an injury, we’re truly sorry for that regardless of who’s at fault. That includes the incident involving Mr. Antonio Smith. We can always do better and we are always committed to doing so.”
Valdosta Daily Times reporter Amanda Usher provided all the details for this report and did the original reporting on this incident.