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Mesa police officers in use of force cases to be disciplined

February 23, 2019

MESA, Ariz. (AP) — Several Mesa police officers involved in two separate excessive force incidents last year will face discipline, but they will get to keep their jobs, the department chief said Friday.

Chief Ramon Batista announced in a statement the officers would receive “varying degrees of discipline” but none would be fired. He could not give details in case of any potential appeals, but he said that he agreed with the recommended punishments.

“We know that we’re not perfect and that as an organization we have always looked for opportunities to evaluate our actions and make appropriate adjustments as warranted,” Batista said. “We are committed to being transparent in everything we do.”

The department hired former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley to conduct a separate probe of the May 2018 beating of a man and the rough treatment of a teenager. The Scottsdale Police Department and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office also led independent investigations and found no grounds for criminal charges.

Both incidents yielded body and security camera videos, which later sparked protests. In one video, officers are seen punching Robert Johnson, then 33, as he stood against a wall. A police report says Johnson was “verbally defiant and confrontational,” but his attorneys challenged that characterization and said there was no reason to attack him.

Johnson was charged with disorderly conduct and hindering prosecution. His attorney at the time said he suffered a concussion, scrapes and bruises.

Police said the encounter with Johnson occurred when officers responded to a call from a woman who said her ex-boyfriend was trying to break into her apartment. Arriving officers found the ex-boyfriend with Johnson, who said he was helping a neighbor get something from the apartment.

In the case of the teenager, video showed officers cursing the youth and grabbing the collar of his T-shirt tightly around his neck. The teen had been arrested on suspicion of armed robbery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Seven officers were put on administrative leave — two in the teen’s arrest and five in Johnson’s case.

Johnson’s attorney, Benjamin Taylor, called for another review. “If this is to be true, trustworthy & transparent, which is what the citizens of Arizona want, no one involved in this investigation should have any ties to the Mesa Police Department,” Taylor said in a statement.

The incidents also prompted Batista to call for the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum to hold an independent review of cases involving force by Mesa police over the past three years.

The review is still ongoing, but some changes have already taken place, the chief said. They include training that leans more toward de-escalating a situation or using non-lethal force. Striking someone on the head, neck or face if they are resisting arrest or an officer’s orders is prohibited. The department is also revising its hiring practices to promote diversity among the rank-and-file.