’I can’t breathe’: Video shows violent arrest in Union County. Now the target has sued.

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UNION COUNTY, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - After he says he was pepper sprayed, tasered, choked and beaten by a group of Union County deputies in April 2019, Dustin Parrish says that when his eyes cleared, he recognized Sheriff Eddie Cathey among the group of onlookers gathered on the rural roadside . Parrish says he begged Cathey for help.

The veteran sheriff, according to Parrish, laughed.

“I can’t help you, son,” the sheriff replied.

Parrish is still asking for help. This time, however, he has turned to the courts.

In a federal lawsuit filed this week, the convicted felon accuses four Union County deputies of brutally beating him in broad daylight after a traffic stop. Parrish estimates he was struck in the face at least 20 times, tased twice, pepper sprayed and placed in a choke hold, even as he says he tried to comply with the officers’ orders.

In phone interviews with the Observer this week, Cathey said the lawsuit omitted a key fact: “(Parrish) created the violence when he assaulted an officer before I got there.”

Parrish’s lawsuit, however, alleges that no such assault occurred, and that the deputies fabricated it and a list of other charges to keep Parrish in jail and cover up their actions.

Dash-cam video of the April 1, 2019, incident obtained by the Observer shows Parrish initially trying to escape the deputies as he steps from the front seat passenger side of a car. A subsequent clip taken after Parrish is tackled shows him struggling on the roadside with two officers. A third deputy, identified in the lawsuit as T. Mills, runs into the frame, jumps on the pile and begins striking Parrish in the head and face.

After the officers get off of him, Parrish kneels and puts his hands behind his back. One deputy shoots pepper spray into Parrish’s eyes at close range. A few seconds later, another deputy appears to tase him and Parrish falls face first into the ground, video shows.

A later clip shows a group of deputies handcuffing Parrish and tying his legs together. They also place what appears to be a black “spit mask” over his face, which, according to the lawsuit, intensified the burning of the pepper spray in Parrish’s eyes.

Parrish, a registered sex offender, can be heard repeatedly shouting to the deputies: “I can’t breathe. Please take it off,” as a deputy, identified in the lawsuit as R.W. Helms, knees him in the stomach before roughly shoving Parrish into the back seat of a patrol car.

Cathey told the Observer that Parrish resisted arrest, ignored the deputies’ orders and twice tried to escape.

“We’re all standing on the road. He had his arms handcuffed behind his back ... He didn’t say anything to me. He just turned and started running, running right up the highway. I actually said, ‘There he goes,’” Cathey said.

“He stumbled into the ditch. One of the deputies caught him and held him on the ground. He said, ‘Eddie, help me. Eddie, help me.’ I said, ‘Dustin, you created this mess. There’s nothing much I can do for you.”

Asked if he saw anything in the video that disturbed him about his officers’ behavior, Cathey said it was their language, not how they physically treated Parrish.

But Phillip Stinson, a professor of criminology at Bowling Green State University and a former police officer, said the video shows that the deputies “were basically torturing” Parrish.

“What I saw there was the gleeful exercise of street justice,” said Stinson, a frequent critic of police use of force who viewed the videos at the Observer’s request.

Stinson acknowledges that the video clips shot from the camera inside one of the deputy’s patrol cars are not continuous, and that the breaks in sequence may hide some of Parrish’s actions.

“However, the parts we do see are troubling,” he said. “Police officers and deputies need to show restraint. Hypothetically, if somebody throws a punch, you don’t get a free shot with a taser or pepper spray.”

PUNCH OR NO PUNCH?

The video clip of the first moments of the stop shows Parrish leaving the car and becoming briefly entangled with an officer as he begins to run. It does not show a punch.

After reviewing the video on Thursday morning, Cathey maintained that Parrish’s right hand struck the face of the deputy, identified in the lawsuit as C.M. Helms.

Asked if he thought the clip showed an actual punch, Cathey said, “I don’t know what (Parrish’s) intent was, but I know what happened.”

Asked if he saw Parrish throwing a punch at the deputy in the video, Stinson said, “There was no punch. Who’s going to be stupid enough to throw a punch at an officer when you’re getting out of a car? But it’s a great way for police to control the narrative and justify everything that happens after that.”

A later video clip appears to show Parrish kneeling with his hands placed behind him when he appears to be tased twice and pepper sprayed.

Cathey said deputies used escalating force after Parrish repeatedly refused orders to get on the ground so he could be handcuffed.

According to the lawsuit, however, deputies lied about the incident and trumped up the charges to keep Parrish jailed for more than 200 days before trial. While he was incarcerated, according to the lawsuit, the jail staff blocked his access to medication he needed for chronic medical conditions for three months. Eventually Parrish had to be hospitalized, the lawsuit claims.

The details about Parrish’s health issues have been redacted from the lawsuit. Citing federal privacy restrictions, Cathey also refused to discuss them but said deputies put the mask over Parrish’s head and face during the arrest to keep him from spitting on them.

Bo Caudill, one of three attorneys from a Matthews law firm representing Parrish, said his client was victimized by excessive force.

“There are few things more dangerous than law enforcement officers who forget that protecting the public means respecting the laws that require them to act with due caution and restraint,” Caudill said in a Thursday statement to the Observer.

“That’s what Mr. Parrish has alleged happened in this lawsuit; that these deputies acted like bullies with badges. His case raises serious questions for the folks who live and work in Union County about whether and to what extent the Union County Sheriff’s Office is committed to safe and respectful policing.”

A LONG LIST OF ARRESTS

The lawsuit names Cathey, deputies Mills, D.B. Belk, C.M. Helms and R.W. Helms, along with an unnamed number of Union County jailers. It accuses the defendants of excessive force, battery, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of Parrish’s due-process rights under the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions.

Parrish, 40, has a long list of arrests in Union County and other parts of the Charlotte region. In 2002 he became a registered sex offender after he was convicted of taking indecent liberties with a 15-year-old Union County girl, state records show. Parrish was 20 at the time of the offense.

On the day of his violent confrontation with the Union County deputies, Parrish was in the front passenger seat of a car driven by a woman who had taken out a protective order against him, the lawsuit says.

Mills was on his way home from work when he spotted the woman with Parrish beside her in a burgundy Kia at the intersection of Potter Road and Lancaster Highway. After he verified that the protective order was still in place, Mills began to follow, the lawsuit says.

He was soon joined by Deputy D.B. Belk, who turned on his blue lights and pulled the Kia over when the caravan reached Latham Road, the lawsuit says.

A third officer, C.M. Helms, arrived at the scene. He walked up to Parrish’s window, the lawsuit says.

“Get the f--- out of the car,” he told Parrish, according to the complaint.

In his report of the incident, Helms wrote that when Parrish stepped out of the car, he “immediately swung and hit me in my mouth with his fist.”

The video does not show that.

“That statement was a lie and (Helms) knew it to be a lie at the time that he made his report,” the lawsuit alleges.

In his lawsuit, Parrish says deputies continued to assault him at the hospital when doctors or nurses left the treatment room — an allegation Cathey says is untrue.

Parrish eventually pleaded guilty to assaulting a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest. He did so, according to the lawsuit, because the sheriff’s office “was putting his life in jeopardy by refusing to give him the medicine he needed and because Parrish knew that the only way to get out of jail in the near future would be to take the plea.”

He received a two-year suspended sentence and was put on probation.

Stinson said the case again shows how video is becoming a major quality-control agent for law enforcement.

“But for the video, nobody would know anything about this, right?” Stinson said. “But we see it often. Police officers lie in incident reports and arrest reports, and they write the narrative to justify the actions they’ve taken. Quite often, their accounts are factually inconsistent with the video evidence.

“It should be pointed out that videos often corroborate the officer’s version. It works both ways. But the days of police owning the narrative, without any rebuttal at all, are over.”

Gavin Off contributed to his story.

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