Mesa, AZ – The Mesa Police Department has placed one sergeant and three officers on administrative leave, after a surveillance video showed them using force during an arrest at an apartment complex on May 23 (video below).
The incident took place at approximately 11:24 p.m., after officers received a call of a woman in distress on fourth floor of a Mesa apartment complex, The Arizona Republic reported.
According to KPHO, the woman reported that two men – one of whom was her ex-boyfriend – were attempting to break into her apartment, Mesa Police Chief Ramon Batista said.
Officers encountered two men on the third floor of the building and gave 33-year-old Robert Johnson “very calm direction” to sit down, Chief Batista told The Arizona Republic in an interview.
“Because there was an allegation that there was weapons involved, the individual was frisked,” Chief Batista explained. “No weapons were located.”
The officers asked Johnson to move away from the railing, where he was standing as he spoke to someone on his cell phone.
Johnson complied, but refused to sit down near a wall when asked to do so.
“The things that he said, in leaning against the wall, made the officers feel as though they needed to have him sit down,” Chief Batista told KPHO. “So, when he didn’t sit down, they applied force.”
Surveillance video from the apartment complex showed the officers as they placed Johnson under arrest, but the officers’ bodies obstructed much of Johnson’s actions as the arrest occurred.
It's impossible to see if Johnson was resisting with violence.
The video also had no audio, so the exact conversation between the officers and Johnson was unknown.
During the encounter, at least two of the officers delivered strikes to Johnson’s torso and head, the video showed.
According to KSAZ, Johnson was briefly knocked unconscious during the altercation.
The officers handcuffed him as he laid on his stomach on the ground.
He attempted to roll on his back several times and officers repeatedly turned him back onto his stomach, the video showed.
One officer finally placed his knee on Johnson’s back, but the handcuffed man continued to push backwards in an apparent attempt to roll over.
He then began to kick and flail, prompting several officers to restrain him while they bound his feet together.
Johnson continued to struggle on the ground, so one officer forcibly held his upper body to keep him under control while a second officer held onto the tie secured around his feet.
The officers then pulled Johnson to his feet and began escorting him towards the elevator.
As the door started to slide open, Johnson turned his head and appeared to spit at an officer on his right side, who swiftly pushed his face towards the door.
Johnson then shoved his upper body back towards the officer and was pushed into the partially opened door again, with his head forced away from the officers.
A moment later, the officers brought Johnson back to the area outside the elevator and laid him on the ground.
One officer secured Johnson’s feet, while two others held him down, the video showed.
Once the combative man was again secured, the officer who bound his feet stood up and tended to what appeared to be a prosthetic leg.
Johnson continued to struggle on the ground while the officers waited for other units to return with a spit hood.
Once the hood was secured on his head, the officers proceeded to carry Johnson into the elevator.
Johnson was charged with suspicion of hindering and disorderly conduct, The Arizona Republic reported.
The other male, identified as 20-year-old Eric Reyes, was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Despite the content of the video footage, Chief Batista declined to comment on whether Johnson was being uncooperative.
“Just for the casual observer, this isn’t going to look right,” he said, according to The Arizona Republic.
"I don't feel that our officers were at their best," Chief Batista added. "I don't feel this situation needed to go the way that it went."
Chief Batista said that he was not made aware of the altercation until about a week after it occurred.
He said that as soon as he realized what had happened, the involved officers were “removed from active service” and were placed on leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
"The images of the video are powerful and I thought it was paramount that you hear it from me with respect to how I feel about it and what I'm going to do to ensure this doesn't happen again," Chief Batista continued.
The chief added that the incident spurred him to implement policy changes that would “limit the opportunity” for officers to “apply strikes” to an individual’s face or head.
“There’s going to be a special directive that says that we will not strike somebody in the face or in the head unless they are showing us active aggression,” he told KPHO.
Additionally, the chief said he implemented “even more stringent” requirements on officers to report use-of-force incidents, so they could be investigated “right away when they occur,” The Arizona Republic reported.
On Tuesday, a local pastor and Johnson’s attorneys issued a statement criticizing the officers’ treatment of Johnson.
"The misconduct of these officers would have gone unnoticed if it had not been captured by surveillance videos at the apartment complex where the assault occurred," the statement read. "We hope and pray that the Mesa Police Department will accept responsibility for the misconduct of these officers. Mesa must take concrete steps to ensure that culpable officers are disciplined, retrained, or dismissed.”
“The officers who initiated this assault need to find another vocation,” Mesa pastor Andre Miller told KSAZ. “Somewhere along the lines we’ve lost the protection aspect and the serving aspect and it’s…become a militant force…against citizens.”
"Mesa has a culture of police brutality, and this affects all people that live in Mesa and travel through Mesa,” Attorney Benjamin Taylor added, according to The Arizona Republic. “This culture needs to be cleaned up immediately."
The Mesa Police Association criticized Chief Batista's decision to release the surveillance video in a Tuesday statement, KPHO reported.
"The Mesa Police Association feels it is grossly inappropriate to release a portion of a video with no audio that does not include the full context of the encounter," the statement read. "Furthermore, we don't understand why video is being released when an internal investigation has not been completed."
"It is important to understand that any use of force, when viewed, is difficult to watch and never looks "good," the union concluded.
You can watch surveillance footage of the incident below. The action starts around 3 minutes in: