The Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into complaints by black college students that they were roughed up by police officers in Virginia Beach, Va., during the Labor Day weekend, the department announced Wednesday.
Department spokeswoman Deborah Burstion-Wade said that the FBI would review videotapes of police officers using clubs to clear the streets of black youths Sunday evening to see if criminal charges are warranted.
43 Injured in Rioting
The police crackdown followed a night of rioting, looting and bottle-throwing that resulted in 43 injuries and the vandalizing of more than 100 businesses.
The three-day disturbance ended Monday with sharply differing accounts of who was to blame. Virginia NAACP leaders charged that the police used excessive force because the 100,000 young people who had gathered for the end-of-the-summer event were black. City and police officials said the black youths precipitated the crackdown with street rioting that extended until nearly dawn Sunday.
The Justice Department acted in response to formal civil rights complaints filed by young people involved, Burstion-Wade said. She refused to describe the specifics of the complaints but said the decision to open an investigation is the "customary response" to the filing of a formal complaint.
"We get thousands of criminal civil rights complaints, and we are obliged to look into them," Burstion-Wade said.
Jack W. Graveley, president of the Virginia chapter of the NAACP, said that his organization has not decided whether to file a formal complaint but that he believes the police "grossly overreacted" Sunday evening.
"I stood outside my hotel and saw them (policemen) trying to sweep the streets," Graveley said in an interview. "I saw kids get hit with clubs and pushed in the back. I didn't see any blood, but everything was basically quiet then. There was no provocation."
Police officers in riot gear formed a wedge and marched down Atlantic Avenue, the main business street. Along the way, they forcibly moved young people who refused to depart.
Gravely conceded, however, that the Sunday evening crackdown occurred after a night in which young people had broken into scores of businesses and pelted policemen with bottles and stones.
"I want to make clear that the NAACP condemns the looting and the rock throwing," he said.
City officials said they welcome the federal inquiry.
"I have nothing to fear in this city being open to scrutiny," Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera Oberndorf said. "We would like to have our name cleared."
During the weekend, she had described the police action as a "controlled response" and noted that most of the 43 injuries counted during the disturbance were suffered by policemen.
Businessmen in the family-oriented resort were critical both of the police for failing to protect their businesses and the black youths for provoking trouble.