Police body camera footage showing the controversial October 2021 arrest of a homeless veteran in Gastonia, N.C., was released July 27, detailing the moments before the veteran was arrested and his service animal tased, ultimately leading to the dog’s death by a car.
Joshua Graham Rohrer, a Kentucky Army National Guard veteran who deployed to Kuwait and Iraq between 2004 and 2005, was with his 2-year-old Belgian Malinois service dog Sunshine Rae on Oct. 13 when he was approached by police officers responding to a 911 call regarding his panhandling, which is a crime in North Carolina.
What followed next was an arrest that the attorney who helped Rohrer fight for the release of the footage, Andrew LaBreche, called, “far worse than what Mr. Rohrer was able to hear and see on the scene.”
“It is rare for a client’s claims that initially appear so sensational to be entirely accurate. After I was finally able to review the body camera footage, however, Mr. Rohrer’s statements were all correct, but what was reflected in recordings were, in fact, far worse than what Mr. Rohrer was able to hear and see on the scene,” LaBreche said in an email to Military Times.
LaBreche also stated that he believes the video proves responding officers were not truthful regarding their handling of Rohrer’s arrest, and hopes that the release of the bodycam footage will force the Gastonia Police Department to take accountability for the incident.
While there is a North Carolina statute that affords people with disabilities the right to keep their service dogs with them in all public and government spaces where the public are allowed to go, Rohrer said he was denied this option.
Sunshine was hit and killed by a car while Rohrer waited for release in jail, a situation Rohrer said never should have happened.
In the bodycam footage, shown from both the vantage points of responding Officers Maurice Taylor III and Cierra Brooks, Rohrer and Sunshine can be seen on the median of a busy street in downtown Gastonia.
After a few minutes of arguing between Rohrer and law enforcement about Rohrer’s activities, Rohrer is grabbed and told by the officers that he will be arrested after not presenting his state ID. Over the course of the argument, Sunshine can be seen sitting, laying and standing next to her owner.
During the arrest, Rohrer is pushed up against the hood of the car and calls out, “what are you doing?” in a panicked voice. Officer Taylor is then heard on video saying that the dog bit him, though the dog is outside the footage’s frame of view.
In the following moments, Rohrer is thrown to the ground while Sunshine jumps on the hood of the police car, wagging her tail. Taylor then tased the dog in the back after she tried to get closer to Rohrer on the ground.
The footage then showed Rohrer distraught on the ground and calling out for help.
Bystanders then approached the police officers, the footage shows, saying that Rohrer has “been out here for months, [and] his dog has never attacked anybody.”
The remainder of the footage shows other officers arriving and discussing the situation while Rohrer repeatedly asks for his dog. Officer Taylor claims that the dog looked like it was going to bite his partner, so he “did the logical thing” and used his taser.
Days prior to the release of the footage, panhandling and resisting arrest charges against Rohrer were dropped. Rohrer pleaded guilty to a separate charge from an unrelated event involving driving without a license.
“The release of the body camera footage involving myself and Sunshine, has been a long arduous journey,” Rohrer said in a statement to Military Times. “The release of the video is as traumatic as the event itself. I hope now that it has been released I can begin to grieve my friend, my confidant, my world. I thank those who have believed in me and supported me for the past nine months.”
Rohrer said the video shows Sunshine “just doing her job.”
“Sunshine was not acting erratically, in fact she performed 3 separate trained tasks in the video,” Rohrer said. “Her attempt to get to my face to perform grounding techniques, her attempt to become a passive barrier between myself and Officer Brooks; and passively blocking between myself and Officer Taylor.”
Rohrer hopes the incident will ultimately have a positive impact on veteran and homeless communities.
“I hope to continue to fight for better crisis intervention training, protections for service animals and their handlers, and justice for what was done to Sunshine,” he said. “In addition, this case highlights the need for reform of North Carolina’s Body Camera Laws. No citizen should have to fight so hard and for so long as we have for the truth.”
The Gastonia Police Department did not respond to request for comment by the time of publication.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran and a master's candidate at New York University's Business & Economic Reporting program.