OPD chief: Force in weekend arrest was justified

·5 min read

Jul. 22—After a nearly 20-minute cellphone video depicting a late-night fight and a subsequent arrest in downtown Oneonta over the weekend drew widespread public outcry, Oneonta police are denying that the arrest of a Black man from Oneonta was racially motivated or involved the use of excessive force.

"The video lacks critical information," acting Oneonta Police Chief Lt. Christopher Witzenburg said. "It's upsetting to me that people will so quickly assume the worst and try to undermine and impugn the actions of police. I get it — there's a lot of things that police have done wrong and do wrong. That's not what happened here."

Isaih Montgomery, 27, was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in the aftermath of a physical altercation between a small group of men early morning Saturday, July 17.

Two OPD officers were on their way back to the station after finishing a shift when they observed "what was an altercation" at the corner of Main and Chestnut streets, according to Witzenburg.

"The officers just wanted to go home. It was the end of their shift," Witzenburg said. "They were immediately challenged by Isaih. He made very aggressive motions toward the officers."

Montgomery, who admitted to being drunk at the time, said he was trying to break up a fight between two other men whom he said were also intoxicated when police arrived on scene.

"I'm just disgusted and I realize I could have died," Montgomery said, declining to comment further on the incident.

"That may be," Witzenburg said in response to Montgomery's claim of limited involvement in the initial scuffle, "but when we tried to investigate it, Isaih made himself the focal point. That changes the dynamic."

"When you have a fight and somebody becomes confrontational, that's where the attention goes," he said. "We base everything on facts and the way it gets presented to us when we get to the scene."

"The calls of racism in this are maddening to me," Witzenburg continued. "That's not what happened. At this point, it's turned into our national pastime. The police have got to get beat up over everything."

Officers tased Montgomery during the course of his arrest — an account that is supported by police, several bystanders, the cellphone video and Montgomery himself.

At issue is the number of times a taser was deployed.

Witzenburg said Montgomery was tased twice, describing the subduing tactic as "effective."

"No probe was discharged," he said. "It's what we call a dry stunning, very similar to a stun gun."

Photos circulated on social media by a friend who witnessed the event showed multiple pairs of distinct dual-pronged welts on Montgomery's back.

Montgomery said he was told by a doctor later that day that the marks were consistent with being tased at least four times.

Witzenburg said the multiple wounds could be explained by the taser's pulse, which caused "surface-area burns."

"They look bad, but tasers are what we call a less-lethal option," Witzenburg said. "If we didn't have those, we'd have to use pepper spray or a baton deployment. If we use the baton to get some leverage, there's the possibility that he gets in control of the baton. Clearly, we didn't want to go to punching him or even a knee strike."

Within hours of Montgomery's arrest, Witzenburg said, he sought a meeting with Montgomery's parents and Lee Fisher, president of the Oneonta chapter of the NAACP, to discuss the incident and review body camera footage from the incident.

"Right away, I thought we'd better get ahead of this because we didn't do anything wrong," he said.

Witzenburg said he has no plans to release the body camera footage.

"It's difficult because if we release it, it obviously works in our favor," he said. "But there's been a big push not to release mug shots, and we see this as similar. We're trying not to slant the case in any way."

If footage of the arrest was to be released, Witzenburg said, he would be concerned that the incident would follow Montgomery throughout his life.

"This was an insignificant traffic-type arrest. It's probably going to get sealed," he said. "If this guy goes and applies for a government job down the line, this would be the first thing to show up when you Google his name. Once you share something online, it's gone. It's out of your control."

A second Oneonta resident, 26-year-old Jonathan French, was arrested the following day after he was identified in body camera footage, Witzenburg said.

"I've seen thousands of these things unfold in this way, literally," Witzenburg said. "You take alcohol or other intoxicants at 2:15 in the morning and it turns into a fight."

Throughout his career in law enforcement, Witzenburg said, he's seen gunfights, stabbings, fistfights, glass bottles broken over people's heads, dozens of smashed storefront windows and people "jumping from car to car, leaving dents in the roofs."

"Oneonta has fighting laws for a reason," he continued. "It's not uncommon for us to have fights here. It's a bar community prone to binge drinking and violent confrontations. It's usually men, 18 to 30 — doesn't matter what race they are — they just become agitated, aggravated and angry."

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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