A 21-year-old D.C. man says he was hit in the face with chemical spray by a Metro Transit Police officer in November after panhandling at the Dupont Circle station.
Metro says the customer refused to leave the station, and assumed a “combative stance.” The incident was caught on security video.
Damian Barnes is a tall, thin 21-year old from Southeast Washington who had just started a new job in the city’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. At the end of a Sunday morning shift on November 17th, Barnes went down into Metro, and put his SmarTrip card up to the machine only to learn he had 15 cents on the card. Barnes had a dollar in his pocket, which he added to the card value. But that was a nickel short of the minimum fare to enter the system. As the security video shows, Barnes then started asking customers for a coin.
“I kind of go toward the turnstile to ask a couple of people,” Barnes told us while looking over the security video. “Knowing that it’s only five cents, I’m quite embarrassed to even ask. So I’m keeping my distance away from people, [asking] ‘Do you think maybe you can spare a quarter or five cents, so I can get home?’”
Barnes also scrolled through the contacts on his cell phone, but no one came to mind that would be available to give him a ride.
The video shows a Metro Transit Police officer on the far side of Barnes, arriving within minutes. They have a brief conversation. The officer then applied chemical spray to Barnes’ face, and took the young man down to the floor -- hard.
Panhandling is against the rules on Metro property. Barnes says the policeman never told him that, but just kept ordering him to leave.
The unnamed officer, in a police report, says he attempted to escort the young man out of the station by the arm, but Barnes pulled away. Barnes says the video shows that did not happen.
The report also says Barnes appeared to be preparing for a physical confrontation. Barnes says the video shows that didn’t happen, either.
“There was no customer assistance at all,” Barnes told us. “I was just being pretty much pushed away from him, too, while I was trying to understand why I had to leave. [Or] if there’s any other assistance I could get, since it’s such, you know, five cents. I was just kind of baffled.”
Barnes says paramedics washed the chemical spray out of his eyes with water, and he was taken to a local hospital for evaluation, then to jail for a few hours. He was charged with panhandling and unlawful entry, but both charges were dropped at a later court date.
In a written statement, Metro says the officer believed the young man was taking a “combative stance,” and use of chemical spray, at that point, is within regulations. Metro will not comment further because Barnes is considering a lawsuit against the transit system.
Barnes says if the officer had simply told him panhandling on Metro is illegal, he would have left the station immediately. Barnes says the policeman never explained that, and that is why he continued talking with the officer, rather than leaving immediately.
When we asked the young man: “Lessons learned from this?”
He, somewhat sheepishly, answered, “have more money with him” at all times.