VERONA — A Harrisonburg woman has filed a lawsuit against two city police officers, alleging the use of excessive force during a 2018 incident that sparked a city-wide conversation about racial motivations in law enforcement.
Melissa Duncan, supported by Nexus Derechos Hermanos Attorneys, filed the lawsuit against Harrisonburg police officers Dwayne Jones and Steven Kramer on Thursday.
“I do expect something out of this — clarity,” Duncan said. “I want clarity.”
“I don’t want them to walk away thinking I did something wrong,” she said.
Nearly a year ago, on Dec. 16, Jones and Kramer responded to a noise complaint against the home of Duncan and her wife, Marcus Bradley, at North 38 apartments in Harrisonburg.
Bradley eventually signed the summons for the noise violation — the second such violation that evening, according to Kramer’s testimony.
The situation spiraled out of control soon after, as officers followed Bradley into her apartment to place her under arrest as she fled inside.
Once in the apartment, the officers then tackled Bradley, and it was at this point when Duncan laid hands on officers fearing for her partner’s safety, she said. She was then tased.
When phone-camera footage of the incident first circulated on social media, groups such as the Harrisonburg-Rockingham NAACP voiced concern about the officers’ conduct.
In response, the Harrisonburg Police Department released over 30 minutes of the body-cam footage from the incident. Throughout the video, Duncan and her wife argue with the police, occasionally insulting and shouting at them before Bradley fled into the apartment when she was told by officers that she was being placed under arrest.
“People saying something that you don’t like — that’s not the door open for you to assault them,” Duncan said.
Over the following days in December 2018, the local NAACP put out a letter saying that there was no wrongdoing from the officers after reviewing the body-cam footage and a conversation with Chief Eric English.
“They have an opinion just like everyone else, but it is not a legal opinion,” Duncan said.
The Harrisonburg-Rockingham NAACP could not be reached for comment Friday.
On May 20, Duncan was indicted for two felony counts of assaulting a police officer and misdemeanor resisting arrest by a Rockingham County grand jury stemming from her conduct on the night of Dec. 16.
Nexus also sponsored Duncan’s criminal defense, according to Mike Donovan, the president and CEO of Nexus Services Inc., of which Nexus Derechos Hermanos Attorneys is a part.
On Aug. 20 and 21, Duncan was declared not guilty of the one misdemeanor and two felony charges by Judge Bruce D. Albertson, according to Rockingham Circuit Court staff.
Duncan’s lawsuit names only Jones and Kramer, but the list of defendants could be increased, said Mario Williams, the president of Nexus Derechos Hermanos Attorneys.
“We just took these two particular officers that, we believe, absolutely are liable,” Williams said. “And we believe more people are liable and we’re going to move forward as we see fit.”
The police’s use of force needs to be proportional, Williams said, and the use of tasers on Duncan was unnecessary and disproportional.
“Fundamentally, they used excessive force against her,” he said.
Harrisonburg City staff has been made aware of the lawsuit, but have not reviewed the suit in depth, according to Michael Parks, director of communications for the city.
“It is something we will be taking a look at over the next couple of days,” Parks said.
“We fully support our Harrisonburg Police Department and all they do to protect and serve our citizens,” he said. “This is a matter we have commented on in the past from the original date, but we don’t have anything to add to that record.”
The Harrisonburg Police Department did not respond to media inquires Friday.
Duncan said the perception of her has been altered by her felony charges, which could negatively impact her future aspirations. But the resolution of the lawsuit, in her favor, would “clarify” the situation, she said.
“Nothing that I could possibly gain from this would make up for what I’ve I lost,” Duncan said.