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Arizona police under scrutiny after beating video surfaces

June 8, 2018
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This image made from a body camera video on Wednesday, May 23, 2018, released by the Mesa Police Department shows police officers approaching a man in Mesa, Ariz. A report from the incident states the man, Robert Johnson, was "verbally defiant and confrontational." Mesa police released the report, along with footage from police-worn cameras, on Wednesday, June 6, after video released by Johnson's attorneys circulated this week, raising criticism over the handling of the incident. (Mesa Police Department via AP)

PHOENIX (AP) — The attorneys and a pastor for a suburban Phoenix man seen on video being beaten by police while standing against a wall said Thursday that the officer’s claim that their client posed a threat “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Pastor Andre Miller said the Mesa Police Department description of why they struck the unarmed Robert Johnson doesn’t hold up.

Johnson’s attorneys also said there was no reason to attack the 33-year-old man, who in videos released this week is shown standing against a wall when officers start to punch him. The videos from the May 23 incident have circulated widely and have raised questions about police conduct at a time when police officers nationwide are under scrutiny for use of force, especially against minorities.

On Thursday evening, Mesa police announced that two police officers have been placed on administration leave over the May 17 arrest of a teenager on suspicion of armed robbery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Body-worn camera footage of the new incident wasn’t immediately available.

Video released this week by an Arizona police department shows officers beating a man standing in an apartment complex hallway, leading to the suspension of some officers involved and an ongoing investigation. (June 7)

Mesa Police Chief Ramon Batista scheduled a Friday news conference to release details of the latest use of force investigation and address his plans on the department’s policies, procedures and training moving forward.

A report states Johnson was “verbally defiant and confrontational.” Mesa police released the report, along with footage from police-worn cameras, on Wednesday after video released by Johnson’s attorneys circulated this week, raising criticism over the police response.

But Johnson’s attorneys and his pastor, who brought the incident to light, said Johnson was not a threat and showed no signs that he was combative. Johnson was charged with disorderly conduct and hindering prosecution. His attorney says Johnson suffered a concussion and scrapes and bruises.

“This is a case where more words needed to be used, and less fists,” attorney Joel Robbins said. “Once (Johnson) had leaned back against the wall he was incapable of continuing any kind of fight because he’s leaning against a wall.”

Three officers and a sergeant are on leave while the department investigates.

Officers were responding to a call from a woman who said her ex-boyfriend was trying to break into her apartment, police said. Police arrived and found the ex-boyfriend, Erick Reyes, 20, along with Johnson. Johnson says he was helping a neighbor get something from the apartment. Both were detained.

Footage released by the police from officer-worn cameras show an officer approaching Johnson and Reyes.

The officer asked Johnson, who was on his phone, to sit down several times but he didn’t. The officer asks him again to sit, but Johnson instead leans against a wall while looking at his phone. An officer then tells him, “Dude they told you to sit your ass down” before several officers start to repeatedly punch him.

Johnson never appears to physically threaten or resist the officers.

“Johnson’s body language was projecting he was preparing for a physical altercation,” one of the officers wrote in the report. “It appeared Johnson was trying not to sit down in order to retain a position of physical advantage by remaining on his feet.”

Will Biascoechea, the president of the police union that represents two of the officers involved, said in a statement that the incident was more complex than what is shown in the video.

“To add some context to the video, it is important to understand that the Officers were responding to a ‘domestic dispute’ that included a subject attempting to force his way into an apartment as well as the report of the presence of a gun,” Biascoechea wrote. “At this point, we urge caution and patience rather than a rush to judgment.”

The department has been criticized previously for its use of force. A former Mesa officer who was fired for violating department policy was tried but acquitted on a murder charge in the 2016 fatal shooting of a Texas man who was unarmed and on the ground.

Miller, senior pastor of New Beginnings Christian Church in Mesa, said this wasn’t a case of racial discrimination but rather an instance of the culture of violence within the department.

“This is a culture that has been acceptable to the city of Mesa,” Miller said.

At a news conference at his church on Thursday, Johnson was emotional and struggled to speak.

“I want Mesa to be held accountable for what they have done,” Johnson said.

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