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Race, police brutality allegations rock Alabama city

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
  • Travarious Daniel, 29, was arrested on March 20 for allegedly breaking into a car
  • Daniel was struck repeatedly in the course of the arrest
  • Daniel is black; the officers involved in the arrest are white
  • The incident occurred in Birmingham, Alabama -- a city with a history of racial strife

(CNN) -- Birmingham, Alabama -- a city with a long history of racial strife -- has been shaken by the release this week of a video recording showing a group of white police officers hitting an African-American man accused of attempting to steal a car.

Travarious Daniel, 29, was arrested outside a nightclub in downtown Birmingham shortly after 1 a.m. on March 20. Video of the arrest shows Daniel, his hands raised in the air, briefly staggering down a sidewalk before being tackled and struck multiple times in the back of the head.

A photo published by the Birmingham News shows Daniel with a bandage over a swollen eye after his arrest.

Two officers have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the result of an internal investigation, according to Gayle Gear, an attorney for the local Fraternal Order of Police.

Calls to the Birmingham's police department were not immediately returned Friday.

Daniel has been charged with unlawful breaking and entering of a vehicle and receiving stolen property. But it is the allegation of police brutality that is drawing attention.

"A group of white policemen and my client is a black victim. Do the math," said Charles Salvagio, Daniel's attorney.

"It's very sad that this is being cast as a racial matter," Gear replied. "The police department is color-blind. This is not a racial matter. Not at all."

Salvagio said the video, which he released to the media, came from the nightclub's security camera. Daniel works at the club and obtained the video.

Birmingham Mayor William Bell -- himself an African-American -- is withholding judgment until the results of an internal investigation.

"The mayor is very disturbed at the video and the images," said Chuck Faush, Bell's chief of staff. But "there is due process and we will wait to find out the facts."

Faush told CNN the city had been examining the possibility of increased mandatory training on issues related to law enforcement and race before Daniel's arrest. The city has also been reaching out to local faith-based and other civic leaders to encourage closer ties.

"This heightens what we're trying to do," he said.

Gear called the mayor "reasonable" and said the police welcome the idea of increased training. But Bell "does not have a law enforcement background," she noted.

The video showing Daniel being hit doesn't tell the whole story, Gear said. She noted that the officers were initially forced to chase Daniel -- who has prior felony convictions -- and that in dealing with a suspect, holding the hands in the air can sometimes be interpreted as an act of defiance.

Most people "see the gentleman with his hands in the air and they think he's giving up," she said. But defendants are told to drop to the ground, and "if you resist, there will be action taken by the police."

"They used only the force necessary to (ensure) an arrest," she asserted.

Salvagio dismissed Gear's claim.

"We have a defense to this, and they know we do," he said. The video is "clear evidence there are some bad apples in the police department."

Salvagio said Daniel intends to file a lawsuit against the police department. Daniel's first court hearing on the car theft charge is scheduled for April 11.

The mayor's office declined to discuss the possible broader racial ramifications of the case.

Birmingham, Alabama's largest city, was the center of the civil rights movement that reverberated through the United States and beyond in the 1950s and 1960s. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in the city for taking part in a peaceful demonstration, and penned the now-famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," an open letter in which he spelled out his justifications for civil disobedience: "... one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

The city also suffered the scars of racially motivated bombings during those turbulent years, most notably a blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four black girls in 1963. The Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial segregation, was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson the following year.

Still, Birmingham has worked hard to rebuild its infrastructure and its image. In recent years, it has adopted "The Diverse City" moniker, "recognizing the city's undeniable civil rights heritage while promoting its diversified destinations" as the Birmingham Business Journal once put it.

Bell, the mayor, plans to be in Atlanta on Monday as one of the recipients of an award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The "Keeper of the Dream" award -- an allusion to King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech -- is given to those who work toward improving equality and justice.

In Birmingham, "we embrace our past, but we only use it to build our future," Faush said.

CNN's Samira J. Simone contributed to this report.