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Fayetteville woman alleges police abused, handcuffed her without cause

Ja’Lana Dunlap says she was taking pictures on vacant property for her employer when officers tried to pull her out of her car


A Fayetteville woman was doing nothing improper when a police officer grabbed her arm and tried to pull her out of her car before putting her in handcuffs, her lawyers allege.

The lawyers, Carnell Johnson of Charlotte and Harry Daniels of Atlanta, say they intend to file a civil lawsuit against Fayetteville police alleging that Ja’Lana Dunlap was detained without probable cause and that police used unnecessary force during the Sept. 6 incident.

Dunlap, who is 22 and Black, filed a written complaint against the police two days later, her lawyers said. Dunlap told CityView that she has not heard anything back from the Police Department since then. She referred all other questions to her lawyers.

Police Chief Gina Hawkins issued a statement Tuesday — about a day after a YouTube video of the incident surfaced on the internet — saying her department is investigating.

“I understand why the cellphone video of a Fayetteville Police Department encounter with Ms. Ja'Lana Dunlap causes concern and the desire of the public to know more,” Hawkins said in the statement. “That's why I am making a request to the Superior Court judge for the release of body-worn camera footage for this incident. 

“We will ensure that the investigation already in process is expedited by the Internal Affairs Unit.”

Hawkins did not say in her statement whether any of the officers involved in the incident had been put on administrative leave while the investigation is being conducted. 

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The YouTube video, originally obtained by "The Young Turks" video news program, shows an unidentified female officer trying to pull Dunlap from her car and Dunlap repeatedly asking the officer why she was doing it. Dunlap can be heard begging the officers to “please stop.” Early in the short video, it appears that Dunlap is still buckled in her seat belt while the officer is pulling on her arm.

“I’m not resisting,” Dunlap tells the officer. “You’ve got me. You’ve got me. What are you doing? Don’t drag me out.”

“OK, then get out of the car,” the officer responds. 

“If you will release my arm, I will,” Dunlap tells her. “Because you are grabbing my arm very tightly. Let go of me. Let go of me!”

The video stops after Dunlap gets out of the car. Her lawyers say she was handcuffed until a supervising officer arrived and was then released without charges being filed. The lawyers say she vomited at one point. They also say she suffers from sickle cell anemia and has suffered from anxiety since the incident to the extent that she’s had to leave her job. 

Johnson said Dunlap was in the area — near Country Club Drive and Clearwater Drive —  as part of that job, taking pictures of garbage and furniture thrown onto a vacant property while she was working as an investigator for a land-management company. 

“Our position is that she was on private property at the behest of her employer, and that property was owned by her employer and that police did not have any legal basis or reasonable suspicion to enter upon that property,” Johnson said, noting that Dunlap had stopped her car about 400 feet after entering the vacant lot.

In her statement, Hawkins said the officers “encountered Ms. Dunlap in a vacant lot in a neighborhood approximately a half mile from a scene where a potentially violent suspect fled from police. After it was clear she was not involved, she was released and not charged." 

Johnson and Harris said they investigated the assertion that someone had fled police about the time Dunlap was detained. They said they could find no evidence that it happened. CityView sent  Fayetteville spokeswoman Jodi Phelps an email asking whether police could provide that evidence. Phelps did not immediately respond.

“I mean, here's the thing, looking for a suspicious person half a mile away? That doesn't even make sense,” Harris said. “Are you looking for a person that you believe committed fraud? Are you looking for a suspicious person? Doesn’t make sense.” 

In a news release, Johnson said Dunlap had returned to her car when the officers approached and asked her why she was on the property. Dunlap told them why, and the officers asked for identification. Dunlap declined to provide ID, Johnson said.

North Carolina is not a “stop and identify” state, Johnson and Harris said, meaning people who have done nothing wrong do not have to show identification.

“This isn’t some hardened criminal we’re talking about,” Johnson said. “Ja’Lana Dunlap is a good woman who was just doing her job when these officers came onto private property and turned her life into a nightmare. She hadn’t committed any crime. She wasn’t suspected of a crime, and she’s never been in legal trouble before. In fact, the only threat she could have possibly posed to the officers was the video she recorded while they assaulted her.”

Johnson said he believes Dunlap was detained because of the color of her skin.

“I can’t think of a single good reason why these officers treated Ms. Dunlap like that,” he said in his release. “In fact, I can only think of a bad reason: because she’s Black. It’s well past time law enforcement realized that’s not a crime.”

Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView. He can be reached at gregbarnes401@gmail.com

Fayetteville, Police Department