The state NAACP is throwing its support behind a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming Delaware State Police wrongfully stopped and harassed an innocent woman.
20-year-old Martiayna Watson says after leaving a gas station in Wilmington’s Southbridge neighborhood on June 24 she noticed a car following her. She says after driving a few blocks, the car and three others boxed her in, hitting her car from the front and back.
Watson says the drivers of the unmarked cars turned out to be plainclothes State Police officers, who she claims pointed their guns at her and refused to explain what was going on. She says one officer dragged her out of her car, and one held a taser to her neck, saying “I’m going to f—- you up.” She says an officer also smashed a window of her car, before realizing she wasn’t the person they were looking for.
Watson filed a lawsuit against the police in U.S. District Court this week, with claims of excessive force, false arrest, assault, reckless conduct and negligence. She is seeking compensation for her emotional suffering.
“This event has been really traumatic for me,” she said, choking back tears. “I have trouble sleeping at night. When I’m driving, I’m afraid that officers are just going to barricade me again, and just pull me over without reason again, and just hold me at gunpoint. ”
Watson says she has been seeing a therapist since the incident because of the toll it took on her mental health.
“It was very frightening for me,” she said. “For them to just leave me in the
street, alone, just hysterically crying, and no one can tell me what’s going on.”
Watson is represented by The Igwe firm, which specializes in personal injury and civil rights litigation, and has pursued other cases alleging police misconduct in Delaware.
State Police arrested an 18-year-old Black woman on robbery and firearm charges the day of the alleged incident. Attorney Emeka Igwe, manager of The Igwe Firm, says it was this woman police were looking for when they stopped Watson.
Leaders of the NAACP State Conference of Branches say Watson was followed because she’s Black—and are seeking structural reforms to prevent a similar incident from happening again.
“She did not do anything wrong, other than being an African American lady who’s miscast,” said Freeman Williams of the NAACP, at a press conference the group held in Southbridge Thursday.
NAACP State Conference of Branches President Richard “Mouse” Smith says he witnessed part of the incident, and has since communicated with a State Police supervisor.
NAACP member and political organizer Coby Owens is calling for reforms to increase transparency in policing.
“The fact that these officers walked away from this case and we don’t know their badge numbers or their names is despicable,” he said Thursday.
Changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which shields records of internal investigations into police conduct from public view, failed to pass the General Assembly this year—even after advocates intensified their calls for reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and after a state task force recommended amendments to lawmakers. Police unions opposed changes to the law.
Watson’s lawyers say police told them the officers involved in the incident were not wearing body cameras. A bill requiring all police in Delaware to wear body cameras passed the General Assembly this year and is awaiting the Governor’s signature. The legislation would see development of a statewide body camera program, which is expected to be implemented in 2022.
Igwe says State Police have offered to pay to fix Watson’s vehicle, and that Watson plans to accept this money. But he says it’s not enough.
“It’s not enough to fix the vehicle and give an apology and throw some change at her,” Igwe said. “Compensation is accountability. If you’re truly sorry, and you truly want to make sure this doesn’t occur, then you need to add some dollar amounts to it.”
Watson is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as legal fees.
Neither State Police nor the Governor’s office responded to requests for comment on the lawsuit.