Poughkeepsie Settles Civil Rights Suit

POUGHKEEPSIE – Two sisters who police say interfered with a lawful arrest are $400,000 richer after they sued the City of Poughkeepsie in federal court. The two sisters, Jamilia Barnett and Julissa Dawkins, both minors, were taken into custody by the City of Poughkeepsie Police after a large melee had broken out among students near the high school on March 11, 2019.

Both Barnett, 16 at the time, and Dawkins who was 13, were charged with disorderly conduct for their roles on March 11, 2019. Their attorney, William Wagstaff, maintained that the arrests were unlawful and police brutalized the sisters. Wagstaff previously told Mid-Hudson News that “Over the days following these unlawful arrests, detectives embarked on a campaign of intimidation under the guise of an investigation into the March 11th events.”

When police arrived and attempted to break up the melee, the two sisters allegedly jumped on the back of officers, resulting in one of them being restrained in accordance with police procedures. The takedown of the one girl was caught on a 17-second video that immediately made its way to social media. A police investigation resulted in the girls being charged with obstructing government administration and the younger girl was also charged with resisting arrest.

On Thursday evening, members of the Poughkeepsie Common Council approved a recommended settlement with the two girls to prevent a costly, drawn-out court battle. The two girls will split the $400,000 settlement between them, with the money coming from the city’s 2023 budget. The settlement “admits no liability” and, according to the resolution, “reflects compromise” between the involved parties.

“The City of Poughkeepsie is grateful to see this matter settled and will continue our comprehensive focus on building strong relations between the police and the community,” said Mayor Marc Nelson on Friday. “That requires a sustained, community-wide effort, and the city is committed to this approach, which involves ongoing dialogue, strengthening our already close ties with community-based groups, police training, and vibrant youth programs, among other important initiatives.”

PBA President Kevin Van Wagner, who was involved in the March 11th incident declined to comment on the settlement. A police officer from a neighboring department called the settlement “absurd”. The union officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “This settlement sends the wrong message to the public. Those officers were doing their jobs that day, by the book, when the girls decided to interfere. What their council is saying is “Go ahead and fight with the police – we will pay you to do it. It is a very dangerous message to send.”

Mr. Wagstaff issued a statement on Friday, saying “After four harrowing years, the City of Poughkeepsie has finally ended the nightmare caused by the unlawful and excessive actions of Officers John Williams and Kevin VanWagner,” adding “While no amount of money will erase the trauma Jamelia and Julissa endured, it is the family’s prayer that this settlement sends a resounding message to the community that police misconduct impacts not just the victims but costs the taxpayers.”

The attorney also credited the community, saying “The family looks forward to closing this challenging chapter of their lives. They thank the courageous elected officials who have been vocal throughout this ordeal and the community for their unwavering support. The family acknowledges the great debt of gratitude owed to activists, students, religious leaders, and concerned citizens who fought alongside them and know that the debt can never truly be repaid.”

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