An Arizona judge has dropped all charges against Robert Johnson, the unarmed black man brutally beaten by Mesa, Arizona police officers last month.
On June 14, a municipal judge granted the Mesa city prosecutor’s request to dismiss charges against Johnson “in the interest of justice”. Johnson had been charged with disorderly conduct and hindering police after officers responded to a 911 call at an apartment complex.
The announcement comes one week after the department attracted national attention for releasing disturbing video footage showing a group of Mesa police officers brutally beating Johnson. The 20-minute video, taken from a surveillance camera, shows several police officers kneeing and punching Johnson. At one point, they slam his head into an elevator door.
“I’m a family man. I’m a God-fearing person,” Johnson told reporters on June 7 while fighting back tears. “I just want Mesa to be held accountable for what they’ve done and everything that happened at the time.”
The incident took place on May 23, when officers responded to a 911 call from a local apartment complex. They arrived to find Erick Reyes, who was suspected of trying to forcibly enter his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, and Johnson. Officers ordered Reyes to sit and began speaking with him, but their interaction with Johnson, who was unarmed and talking on a cellphone, quickly escalated.
Mesa Police Chief Ramon Batista told reporters that he released the video to the public because he wanted to be transparent about the incident and provide additional context that would be left out if the video were anonymously posted online. Batista said he was not aware of the incident until the surveillance video was sent to the police department by a civilian.
“I don’t feel that our officers were at their best,” he told reporters at the time. “I don’t feel this situation needed to go the way that it went.”
Three officers and a sergeant who were involved in the incident were initially placed on administrative leave while the department conducts an investigation. Batista said that the department would change some of its use-of-force policies afterward. On June 6, the department released additional body camera footage of the incident, and added that a fifth officer had been placed on leave following the incident.
Critics of the department’s behavior say several high-profile incidents involving Mesa police in the past few years complicate the efforts to cast this as a one-off event.
After Johnson’s arrest, Batista called for a review of how Mesa police officers use force. On June 7, the department released new video footage showing the May 17 arrest of a 15-year-old suspected of armed robbery and aggravated assault. In video of that incident, an officer can be seen grabbing at the teen’s neck in the video, and at one point, the teen is told to “stop yelling like a little bitch.” Later, an officer tells the teen that if he moves again, “I’m gonna fuck you up.” Two of the officers involved in the incident were placed on leave.
And on June 13, the Arizona Republic wrote of an incident from earlier this year where Mesa officers punched and mocked an unarmed man as he laid on a hospital floor in a pool of blood.
“Mesa has a culture of police brutality, and this affects all people that live in Mesa and travel through Mesa, and this culture needs to be cleaned up immediately,” Benjamin Taylor, Johnson’s attorney, told the Arizona Republic earlier this month.
Video of Johnson’s arrest is disturbing
A short video showing several officers beating Johnson began circulating online on June 5.
URGENT: These @MesaPD Officers need to be arrested & charged immediately.— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) June 6, 2018
33 year old Robert Johnson was not just unarmed & non-violent, he never committed a crime. They literally gave him a ticket after knocking him out.
And never mentioned the assault.
This video busted them pic.twitter.com/RlmcQN6t8y
In the longer, 20-minute video released by Mesa police, Johnson can be seen standing on the apartment complex balcony. The footage, which does not include sound, also shows Reyes, who is sitting on the ground speaking with an officer. Johnson speaks with the officer but then returns to his phone.
[WARNING: Video contains graphic content.]
Soon after, three more police officers arrive and Johnson is frisked as he uses his phone. One officer then seems to point toward a wall near the elevator, apparently ordering Johnson to move there. After Johnson moves, the officer then points to the ground. When Johnson remains standing, leaning against a wall as he uses his phone, he is grabbed and quickly surrounded by several officers as he is repeatedly struck in the face.
A punch from one officer seems to stun Johnson, and he falls to the ground.
The next several minutes of the video show Johnson being pinned to the ground and handcuffed by officers. When Johnson attempts to sit up several minutes into the video, he is swiftly pushed down and placed in leg restraints.
Later in the video, officers are seen lifting Johnson and walking him toward a nearby elevator. The officers suddenly slam his head and hold it against the elevator door as it opens, before moving back onto the balcony. Several minutes later, a white cloth is wrapped around Johnson’s face as he is lifted by his arms and legs and carried into the elevator.
The body camera footage released on June 6, which does include sound, consists of several videos. One video captures the beginning of the first responding officer’s interaction with Johnson and Reyes. The officer tells Johnson to sit, but does not make additional demands when Johnson remains on the balcony and begins using his phone. When additional officers arrive and tell Johnson to sit, he moves to the nearby wall and leans against it. At that moment, he is surrounded and struck by at least three officers.
Another video begins silently, but audio kicks in as officers move in to grab Johnson.
After the scuffle, Johnson can be heard yelling and swearing at the officers shortly after being knocked to the ground and restrained. “You didn’t need to put all that force on me,” Johnson says at one point. “Did it feel good, putting your hands on me while I was subdued?”
The department also released copies of the police report filed after the incident. In the report, obtained by BuzzFeed News, officers argued that Johnson had acted “confrontational and verbally defiant.” The report also justified the officers’ force, saying that Johnson, who at the time was leaning against the wall and using his phone, appeared to be “preparing for a physical altercation.”
”It appeared Johnson was trying not to sit down in order to retain a position of physical advantage by remaining on his feet,” one officer noted in his report. “ My goal was to put Johnson at a position of disadvantage by getting him to sit down.”
Johnson’s representatives have balked at that characterization. “You see literally people hitting him multiple times, him sliding down the wall unconscious, and one last hit in the face. That is unacceptable,” attorney Joel Robbins, said at the June 7 news conference. “This was a case where more words needed to be used and less fists.”
This isn’t the first time the police department has been accused of excessive force
The fallout from Johnson’s assault comes at a time when national attention is focused on large racial disparities in police use of force. But Johnson’s violent arrest also fits into a broader conversation about police violence in Mesa.
Community leaders and lawyers working with Johnson said in a statement that the incident is part of a larger problem, noting in interviews with reporters that this isn’t the first excessive force case to roil the department.
In 2016, the department found itself in the national spotlight after Philip Brailsford, then a Mesa police officer, fatally shot Daniel Shaver, a white pest control worker, while responding to a 911 call. The case was amplified by activists in the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2017, after Brailsford was acquitted of second-degree murder charges, previously unreleased video showed Shaver, who was unarmed at the time, crawling on his hands and knees and pleading with the officer to not shoot him. In March, Mesa police confirmed that the Justice Department was investigating the shooting.
And in February, Mesa police found themselves at the center of a local firestorm when an 84-year-old woman was injured after police were called to her residence. Police initially told the woman’s family that she had slipped and injured herself, but body camera footage later released by the department showed that an officer had grabbed the woman and forced her to the ground, leaving her with multiple bruises.
“This is a culture issue, a police culture issue, that has to change,” Andre Miller, a local pastor said at the June 7 press conference. “It could happen to any one of us when we have an encounter with police and it should not.”
“Another Mr. Johnson should not happen. Another incident on camera should not happen,” he added.