Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s Dog Attack Calls for Action, Accountability
Community members are organizing a rally at the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office Friday to demand justice for a Columbus man who was brutally attacked by a police dog in March.
Derek Stokes was suspected of shoplifting from the Tuscaloosa Walmart on Skyland Boulevard on March 5. According to the initial story from AL.com, he had travelled over an hour from Columbus, Mississippi to buy food in bulk from the nearest Sam's Club, and stopped at Walmart on the way out of town.
Tuscaloosa Police officers were called to the scene when a Walmart employee reportedly stopped Stokes and accused him of hiding a video projector. The incident escalated when Stokes allegedly resisted being handcuffed and ran behind the store towards some nearby woods.
Tuscaloosa County Sheriffs' deputies deployed a K-9 unit, which then tore into Stokes' right arm.
Stokes was badly injured and spent three weeks handcuffed to his hospital bed as he underwent five surgeries to graft new skin onto his arm. Because he was technically a prisoner in police custody, he was not able to make phone calls to family or friends, according to the AL.com report. His family received the first notice of his status after hospital bills began arriving a week after the incident.
Stokes went on to spend another two weeks in the hospital and left on April 10. No charges have ever been officially filed against him, though a warrant to charge him with third-degree robbery was issued on March 11th. No body camera footage of the incident has been released. Stokes is now responsible for the bill for his entire hospital stay.
"Although I don't know Derek personally, I hear his story and I see my older brother, I see my uncle, a friend," said Deanna Reed, the event's organizer. "I see someone I see every day in my community,"
She said she and other community members are protesting a spike in cases involving police dogs being used against Black men for minor crimes.
The rally will be held at 3 p.m. on Friday, May 7 in front of the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office. Reed said she will be joined by members of Stokes' family and members of the community. She hopes this event will be an opportunity for their voices to finally be heard.
She told The Thread that the issue is not with whether Stokes complied or not at any given point during the incident. She said that the issue stems from the amount of force used against him during his arrest.
"Some law enforcement choose to engage with people of color in terrifying ways," Reed said. "Imagine living in a world where you want to be protected from the people that are supposed to be providing protection."
Reed said she hopes the deputy that chose to release the dog, who has yet to be identified, will be fired. She also wants to see the release of body camera and Walmart surveillance footage, and for the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office to take responsibility for Stokes' medical expenses.
She and other activists are also calling for enhancement of police training to better address and resolve these routine situations without the need for escalation.