As the racially charged aftershocks of Daniel Prude’s death at the hands of Rochester police officers continue to ripple through the community, a mother of a Black teenager is suing the city and nine RPD officers.
The suit is over an incident in which police officers allegedly wrongly arrested her son, macing and putting the eighth-grade honor student in a chokehold as the teenager stepped off a Rochester City School District bus.
Dashonda Watford, acting as her minor son’s guardian, filed the court action Aug. 28 in state Supreme Court roughly a year after the September 2019 incident.
According to the lawsuit, the incident occurred after a fight broke out on a school bus on which Watford’s son, Jusmeir Mitchell, who was not involved in the fight, was a passenger.
Actions taken by police as detailed in Watford’s complaint bear similarities to RPD actions captured on police body cam video that led to Prude’s death in April of this year.
In both incidents, police subdued unarmed, nonviolent suspects and forcibly held them down. Members of Prude’s family blame police treatment of Prude for their relative’s death, a contention backed by the Monroe County medical examiner who ruled Prude’s death a homicide.
While no one died in the 2019 school bus incident, Watford and other plaintiffs in her court action claim to be victims of wrongly directed police use of force and say that as a result some unfairly suffered lasting injuries.
Police Locust Club president Michael Mazzeo has defended officers’ conduct in both cases, publicly stating that RPD officers appropriately followed protocol.
“To come out and say there’s brutality here, or inappropriate actions by the police is completely absolutely wrong,” the RPD union president told a reporter at the time of the 2019 school bus incident. Mazzeo said he made that determination after viewing cell phone video Watford took of the incident and police body cam footage.
According to Watford’s court complaint, Digna DeJesus, acting on orders from her dispatcher, parked the RCSD school bus she was driving in the 600 block of Lake Avenue and waited for police to arrive after a fight broke out in the back of the bus.
Mitchell, who was seated in the middle of the bus, called his mother after asking for and receiving DeJesus’ permission to have Watford pick him up, the court brief states. Watford at the time was at an open house at an RCSD elementary school attended by her other children. She, along with her four children and their father, Jesse Noble IV, who was also attending the open house, immediately left to pick Mitchell up. Noble is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
According to Watford’s court complaint, Watford and Noble pulled up to the parked school bus at roughly the same time as police arrived. DeJesus opened the bus door to let Mitchell debark as Watford was coming to collect her son.
As the eighth grader exited, the court complaint states, DeJesus told police officers that Mitchell was not one of the scuffling students. Ignoring the bus driver’s initial statement and her second shouted cry that he was grabbing the wrong child, Officer Connor Edwards pushed aside Watford, who at the time was two months pregnant. Edwards then ordered DeJesus to close the bus door, maced Mitchell, forced him to the ground, slammed his face into the pavement and put him in a choke hold before handcuffing the teenager and putting him in the back of police car, the suit contends.
Edwards continued to push Watford away as she took a cell phone video, while another officer, Giovanni Mendez, also pushed Watford and tried to grab her phone, the court complaint claims.
When Noble tried to intervene, shouting “you’ve got the wrong person,” Edwards and another officer, Derek Sterling, wrestled him to the ground, put a knee to his neck, handcuffed him and arrested him, the suit contends. A third officer, Anthony Pedicone, maced Noble, the complaint states. Police charged Noble, who spent a night in jail before being released on his own recognizance, with resisting arrest, harassment and obstructing their arrest of Mitchell.
Mitchell suffered a concussion, arm, neck and shoulder pain as a result the incident, while Noble suffered arm, neck and shoulder pain, the court complaint states. Both have been emotionally and psychologically scarred, it adds.
Claiming that the RPD officers’ conduct was not only unwarranted but “willful, malicious, oppressive and/or reckless,” the lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages from the city and individual officers.
The resisting arrest case against Noble is still pending. Mitchell was never charged with a crime.
In addition to Edwards, Mendez, Pedicone and Sterling, the court action targets five other unidentified RPD officers alleged to have had a hand in the incident.
The city and RPD so far have not filed a response to the court action. Rochester Corporation Counsel lawyers filed papers Wednesday seeking to have the action transferred to the U.S. Western District of New York’s Rochester Division. They cite the lawsuit’s claim that plaintiffs’ constitutional rights were violated as reason to have the case heard in a federal jurisdiction.
Will Astor is a Rochester Beacon senior writer.