An sexagenarian Black librarian claims she was assaulted and beaten by police officers and deputies during a traffic stop on a North Carolina highway in May 2019.
Stephanie Bottom was making the six-hour trek from Atlanta to Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend her aunt’s funeral. She was cruising northbound on Interstate 85 in her Toyota Sequoia. She says she had her music turned up loudly and was listening to tunes as she made the journey.
When police vehicles pulled behind her, Bottom continued driving for another 10 miles, oblivious, she says, to the fact that they were trying to stop her for speeding. Bottom didn’t think she was speeding and claims she didn’t realize she was being pulled over.
Officers used stop sticks and pulled Bottom over at gunpoint. Then police yanked the 68-year-old Atlanta woman out of her driver’s seat by her hair, according to a federal lawsuit.
Bottom is suing the city of Salisbury, two of the city’s police officers and a Rowan County sheriff’s deputy who were involved in the May 30, 2019 incident. The federal complaint also names Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten as well as the Pennsylvania National Mutual, Casualty Insurance Company, the insurance company with which the Sheriff’s Office has a $2 million surety bond.
Bottom’s lawsuit was filed April 21 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. She alleges officers assaulted her and unlawfully searched her SUV during the chaotic ordeal. She’s asking for damages and an injunction against the policies and practices in which the officers engaged while taking her into custody.
Bottom is being represented by Scott Holmes, professor of the Civil Litigation Clinic, a program for third-year law-school students at the North Carolina Central University. The clinic has partnered with Emancipate North Carolina, a civil rights nonprofit based in Durham.
Ian Mance is the attorney handling the case for the public policy program, which is dedicated to criminal justice reform and eradicating structural racism. He said he was particularly struck by officers’ brutal treatment of an elderly woman who was unarmed and showed no signs of being violent.
“There was no indication that local law enforcement agencies we’re going to take any action against these officers,” Mance explained in an interview with Atlanta Black Star. “I think we all kind of saw this case the same way, which is this was an egregious example of excessive force. And the departments did not seem inclined to take action to hold these officers accountable. If they’re not going to hold these officers accountable in a situation like this, when will they hold officers accountable?”
The incident began the evening of May 30, 2019 when a deputy allegedly spotted Bottom driving 80 mph on the interstate, which has a 70 mph speed limit. Bottom noticed the deputy’s blue lights but didn’t think she was speeding so she didn’t stop. She thought the police were attempting to stop another motorist on the interstate, and claims her music drowned out the sirens.
Pretty soon, four male officers were involved in the chase. Among them was Salisbury police officer Adam Bouk, Rowan County sheriff’s deputy Mark Benfield, a Highway Patrol trooper identified in the lawsuit only as Officer Smith and Devin Barkalow, a plainclothes Salisbury cop.
An officer pulled alongside Bottom’s SUV at one point during the chase and looked inside her vehicle. He identified her on the radio as “an older Black female.” A frustrated Barkalow called Bottom a “fucking retard” and a “douche bag” while chasing her in his squad car. Bodycam footage showed he also said it was an “exciting chase” and commented that he was “at the edge of his seat.”
Smith pulled ahead of Bottom at one point and laid down a spike strip to flatten her SUV’s tires. That’s when she pulled over to the highway’s median.
Bodycam footage showed Deputy Benfield hop out with his gun drawn as he and the other officers swarmed her car. Bottom’s lawsuit indicates Barkalow also aimed his weapon at her.
As Bottom was unbuckling her seatbelt, Barkalow rushed in from the passenger’s side of the SUV and snatched the elderly woman out of the driver’s seat by her hair, then slammed her to the pavement. The other officers swooped in and handcuffed Bottom, who yelled and writhed in pain as they yanked her arms her back to shackle her. Benfield, Bouk and Barkalow pinned her to the ground with their arms and knees on Bottom’s back, the lawsuit alleges.
Bottom appeared befuddled at the officers’ aggressive response. Bouk yelled that they’d been following her trying to get her to stop for over 10 miles.
“I was just driving,” Bottom said.
“You’re going to jail now,” the policeman responded.
“Why? What have I done wrong?” Bottom cried out, growing increasingly incredulous. “What have I done wrong? Please, why are you doing this to me?”
“It was a simple traffic stop, that’s all we had to do,” Benfield told her. “We’d write you a ticket. You turned it into this.”
Bottom sobbed as she sat on the ground at the side of the high gasping in pain. She told officers she had a torn ligament in her shoulder from a previous car accident and begged them to uncuff her arms from behind her back. Bouk refused, while the three other officers ignored her pleas.
She later asked to be taken to the hospital and told a ranking police captain who arrived on scene that officers had broken her arm.
Bouk and Benfield explained to Bottom that she refused to stop when they attempted to pull her over for speeding. Bottom claimed she was driving 70 mph or 75 mph with her music turned up so loudly that she couldn’t hear the sirens. She said she didn’t realize the contingent of officers were after her.
Authorities scoffed at her explanation, finding it hard to believe she didn’t notice them for 10 miles. Bouk told her a cruiser pulled right beside her vehicle at one point during the pursuit and said she endangered “a whole lot of people.” Authorities indicated they also had their lights and sirens flashing as well.
“Ma’am, there was about four police cars behind you at one point in time,” Benfield told Bottom as she claimed she didn’t realize the officers had been chasing her for miles. “I don’t understand how they do it in Georgia, but that’s not how it’s done here.”
According to a July 2020 report from the North Carolina Justice Analysis Review, Black motorists were stopped at a rate twice as high as white drivers in the Tar Heel State, and almost 1.5 times the rates of other races. A March report from the review panel, which is part of the Governor’s Crime Commission, showed that Black drivers are also searched nearly twice the rate as white and Hispanics in North Carolina, and more than three times the rate of other races.
Mance said that was one of the reasons Emancipate North Carolina opted to take on Bottom’s case
“We know that North Carolina has really widespread and entrenched, pronounced racial disparities in terms of the way that black and white motorists are policed,” he said. “I think that one of the main reasons we decided to get involved and impact litigation around traffic stops is that here, traffic stops are the main way that people interact with the police. So they make up the majority of citizens police interactions in a given year.
“That’s not the case in a lot of states. But here, that is kind of the main way that people interact with police,” Mance added. “So when things go wrong with the police, that is very often in the context of traffic stops.”
Bottom’s lawsuit claims officers used excessive force when they approached her at gunpoint and when they dragged her out of her SUV. Her attorneys argue the officers didn’t give the elderly woman enough time to exit her vehicle and acted recklessly by forcibly removing her.
According to the complaint, Bottom was unarmed and posed no threat. She had her hands up and was attempting to exit the vehicle, but it was difficult to do so quickly because of her age and medical conditions.
Her lawyers claim the officers’ reckless actions aggravated an old injury and caused Bottom’s shoulder to “pop” as the officers handcuffed her. She had to be hospitalized and undergo surgery for a torn rotator cuff. Her shoulder has never fully healed and the incident left her with permanent damage.
Bottom’s attorneys also argue that officers were “deliberately indifferent” to the woman’s pain. They ignored her cries for medical attention and failed to render immediate treatment for her injuries.
Bouk told other officers “that’s good police work, baby” even as Bottom continued to complain about her shoulder. Some of the other officers congratulated each other for a job well done, the lawsuit alleges. Barkalow bragged about grabbing a “handful of dreads,” and said “at that point she earned it.”
Paramedics were eventually called to the scene. According to The Associated Press, it was about an hour before EMS arrived. They determined Bottom needed to be hospitalized. The officers then decided not to charge Bottom to avoid paying the cost of her hospital bills, her attorneys allege. Instead, the officers decided to issue a criminal summons for her to appear in court at a later date.
One of the police officers who no longer works for the Salisbury Police Department declined to comment when contacted by the Charlotte Observer. The other officers did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the city of Salisbury also declined to comment about the incident.
Bottom would later be charged with speeding, failure to heed to blue lights and resisting, delaying and obstructing an officer. She was accused of “refusing to get out of her vehicle and pulling away from the officer.” The lawsuit denied those allegations.
When Bottom appeared in court, she pleaded guilty to the failure to heed blue lights charge. The two other charges were dismissed.
The suit also maintains that officers had no probable cause and never asked for Bottom’s consent to search her SUV or her purse, which was in the vehicle.
Bottom was not driving recklessly, she didn’t lead officers on a high-speed chase, and she never intentionally tried to elude them, her attorneys contend. Despite that, authorities felt justified in threatening deadly force and physically assaulting the woman because she didn’t pull over in a timely manner.
Bottom was not available for comment this week. Her attorneys said she had to foot the bill for medical treatments, repairs to her SUV and was left to grapple with the emotional fallout of her encounter.
“This was this was a very traumatic thing for her to go through,” Mance said. “It was very frightening. It caused her a very significant injury that required surgery, that required her to spend time in the hospital. She had to miss a significant amount of work. So this was very disruptive to her life in many ways.”