By all accounts, things got weird on the streets of East Atlanta Village in the early-morning hours of April 30. A confrontation between a group of jaywalking revelers and a pissed-off motorist culminated in a 22-year-old woman being carted off in an ambulance after coming precariously close to being crushed beneath the rear tires of a full-size GMC Sierra pickup truck. The agent provocateur that set into motion the bizarre series of events? A bottle of Sriracha hot sauce. And, ironically enough, the individual provoked – the driver of the pickup – was an off-duty Atlanta Police Department officer.
The cop was given both Breathalyzer and field sobriety tests, placed in the back of a police cruiser, and had his truck towed – giving witnesses the reasonable impression that he'd be spending the next few hours being booked into jail. But Officer Justin Christensen wasn't arrested, and still hasn't been charged with any crime in the matter, although he's been suspended from active duty.
"It's like they mock-arrested him," says one eyewitness to the evening's events. If there was any question as to the way things went down, several resourceful witnesses broke out their camera phones to ensure there would be a visual record of the incident – or at least to post a cool fight on YouTube.
There was no shortage of bystanders in East Atlanta that Friday morning just past 2:30 a.m., and their respective recollections of the incident's genesis are consistent. Last call had been, well, called, and late-week merrymakers had spilled out of the neighborhood's bars and restaurants onto Flat Shoals Avenue. A group of friends leaving East Side Lounge darted across the street to their parked vehicle, ostensibly to head home for the night. But one member of the group forgot something – a bottle of hot sauce – and ran back across the street to retrieve it.
Making his way across the street for the third time, the foolhardy pedestrian forced Christensen, who was heading north on Flat Shoals, to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting him. After an exchange of unkind words, Christensen threw his vehicle into park in the middle of the street, leaving other northbound drivers with no choice but to wait behind him.
"Who wants to go to jail tonight?" Christensen asked menacingly, flashing his badge as he approached the parked Honda Element that the hot sauce-wielding pedestrian had entered to join the rest of his party.
Christensen proceeded to open the car's doors and began reaching inside.
At this point during the rapidly escalating affray, one witness – who asked not to be identified – got out his camera phone and started recording.
As the roughly three-minute-long video begins, Christensen can be seen leaning into the Honda's backseat. He emerges with an object in hand, apparently the plastic bottle of hot sauce. Before walking back toward his vehicle, he impetuously throws the bottle back into the Honda. Then a young woman hops out of the car.
"You sprayed me in my fucking eye," she shouts, marching up to Christensen's driver's side door as he begins to pull away. In the accident report, Christensen claims he, too, had been sprayed with hot sauce by one of the Honda's occupants.
The angle from which the video was taken makes it difficult to see whether she falls or is knocked over, but within a matter of seconds, the woman, Rachel Shaw of Alpharetta, is on the asphalt and Christensen's truck is still in motion.
She's dragged beneath the truck for what looks like a few feet. Bystanders scream and the vehicle stops as the rear tire comes mere millimeters from rolling over her hips.
"You just ran her over, you douchebag motherfucker," a witness yells – one of numerous expletive-laden exclamations that can be heard on the video.
Christensen exits his truck and, without checking to see if the woman is hurt, begins fiddling with his cell phone. An on-duty police officer arrives less than a minute later to find Shaw squirming around on the ground, not seriously injured – so says the accident report – but bruised and in pain. She was taken to Atlanta Medical Center by ambulance. Shaw did not return calls to comment for this article.
After giving Christensen field sobriety and Breathalyzer tests, the police impounded his truck and had it towed away.
In the days following, East Atlanta's community message board, EAVBuzz.net, lit up. Liz DePietro, owner of Village Smoke hookah lounge and an eyewitness, initiated a thread about the incident. In a conversation with CL, DePietro said she was disturbed by the liberties Christensen felt comfortable taking with the group of young people.
"He was being a Little Billy Bad Ass," DePietro says of Christensen's behavior. "He just seemed too aggressive for a cop. If he was on duty, would he act that way? That's what scares me."
Many EAVBuzz commenters expressed similar sentiments, while others utilized the forum to post videos they'd taken that night. One person, using the handle horrorpunk138, posted a clip recorded on his camera phone of Christensen performing the walk-and-turn portion of the field sobriety test. According to police, Christensen passed that test and a Breathalyzer indicated that his blood alcohol content was .03, well below the legal limit of .08.
However, witnesses who watched the off-duty cop perform the tests and saw him in the back seat of a police car have been surprised to hear that Christensen was never placed under arrest. Some of those interviewed by CL had assumed he'd been cited for DUI.
Reverse surveillance – that is, citizens keeping an eye on police – isn't a new phenomenon. Rodney King's merciless beating at the hands of four LAPD officers was captured by a video camera-carrying bystander back in 1991. But the portability and prevalence of newer phone and camera technologies, not to mention the rise of media-sharing sites, have given passers-by additional ammunition in reporting incidents of police misconduct. In 2008, an agro NYPD officer was caught on video attacking a bicyclist riding through Times Square during a critical mass bike rally. The video quickly hit YouTube, and led to the officer's firing.
Because Christensen is currently being investigated by the APD's Office of Professional Standards, police spokesman Sgt. Curtis Davenport wouldn't comment on the incident except to say that Christensen "was relieved of duty that night so that a preliminary investigation could be conducted" and that he "has not been charged with anything criminally." Police haven't indicated how long the investigation is expected to take.
The witness who recorded the three-minute video has declined to release it publicly out of respect for Shaw, although he did make it available to police. Should the OPS require it for their investigation, there's more footage and eyewitness accounts floating around the Web. The lesson for bar-hoppers: Bring the camera phone, but leave the hot sauce at home.