Mesa Police Release Report, Body-Cam Videos of Violent Arrest

Mesa police are in hot water after a video surfaced of officers repeatedly punching, then hog-tying, a black suspect on May 23.
Mesa police are in hot water after a video surfaced of officers repeatedly punching, then hog-tying, a black suspect on May 23. YouTube

Mesa police released body-cam videos and an incident report on Wednesday that adds more details of a violent arrest that the city's police chief called a "mistake."

Chief Ramon Batista made the statements after releasing a shocking surveillance video to the public on Tuesday of the May 23 arrest of Mesa resident Robert Johnson, Jr.

"The body camera footage is horrific." — Benjamin Taylor, attorney for the suspect.

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"This in no way represents the whole work that is done every day," Batista told TV news crews on Tuesday. "They're human beings and certainly at first glance, this looks like a mistake."

At about 5 p.m., protesters with anti-police signs began gathering at Mesa police headquarters at 130 North Robson.

The video of a group of mostly white officers punching a black suspect repeatedly has entered the public domain when debate still raged in America over alleged police brutality, especially toward minorities, and seven months after a Mesa officer was found not guilty of murder after shooting an unarmed man.

However, the body cam contains audio, as the surveillance video did not.  Some viewers will undoubtedly find that the suspect's lack of compliance and expressed willingness to fight played a role in the incident.

Batista said that he decided to release the surveillance video to the public after a community member gave it to him, and to investigate what happened. The four officers – including one supervisor – are on administrative leave during the investigation.

The body-cam videos bring the seemingly one-sided fight close in for the viewer, with audio.

In the audio track of the body-cam video above, (audio begins 30 seconds into the video), Johnson curses and insults officers. At least one officer chuckles over the incident before Johnson's handcuffed. An officer also accuses Johnson of spitting on him, which apparently was the reason police put the white bandage around his face before carrying him away.

click to enlarge Is this arrest a case of racist policing? A black officer helped white officers punch and restrain the black suspect, as shown in the videos. - MESA PD
Is this arrest a case of racist policing? A black officer helped white officers punch and restrain the black suspect, as shown in the videos.
Mesa PD
"How pretty are you?" Johnson says to officer says at about 8 minutes and 30 seconds into the body-cam video above, after the suspect was handcuffed and had already taken several hard punches and elbow strikes.

An officer then slams Johnson's head into an elevator door.

"Don't you dare try. ... You tried to spit on me!" the officer yells.

The incident began when police responded to an apartment complex at 701 East Main Street just before midnight on May 23, the report released on Wednesday shows. The woman who lived there with her three children had called police: Her ex-boyfriend – and father of her three kids – was trying to force his way into the apartment. One of her friends had a gun inside, and she told police she was worried her ex, Erik Reyes, would gain access to it.

The woman reported that Reyes had been at her apartment earlier causing a disturbance. He returned a while later with his friend, Johnson.

Police found both Reyes and Johnson at the complex, but only Reyes complied with officers' commands to sit down, police said.

"Why do I need to sit down?" Johnson asked officers as he held a cellphone up to his ear, the report states. "I don't want to sit down."

The officer who wrote the report, J. Jones, justifies what happened next with detailed explanations on how his training indicated that Johnson was preparing to fight the officers. He told police he had a knife in his front pocket, but officers couldn't find it.

"Johnson appeared to be confrontational and verbally defiant," Officer Jones wrote.

Johnson put his back against the wall and spread out his legs.

"In that position Johnson not only had lateral mobility, but also a strong base in the wall to fight off of," Jones wrote. "I recognized this from combative training I have received in the past which boasts on the necessity of putting a wall to your back when confronted with multiple opponents."

Jones read Johnson's body language. He noted how Johnson looked at the floor, trying to see multiple opponents in his peripheral vision. He said Johnson's breathing grew "shallower and intentional." Jones also wrote how he was worried that if the fight didn't end quickly, a person could end up thrown over the four-foot-high balcony railing to the ground three stories below.

He grabbed Johnson's hand, then grabbed by the base of the skull in "Muay Thai" style, he wrote, referring to what's known as the "martial art with eight limbs." He began trying knee strikes as other officers tried to control the suspect, who was tensing up and twisting to get away, Jones wrote.

Jones wrote that it did not seem "reasonable" at that point to try to break away from the fight to use a taser or pepper spray. He doesn't indicate in the report why those methods weren't used before officers got physical with Johnson.

"I felt it necessary to transition to hard strikes in order to distract Johnson from the take-down efforts," he wrote. "I delivered three to four half strength closed fist strikes to the left side of Johnson's jaw line."

That didn't "distract" Johnson enough.

"I then delivered a right elbow strike to Johnson's face which landed flush on his forehead," Jones wrote.

click to enlarge Protesters with anti-police signs began showing up to the Mesa police headquarters just after 5 p.m. on Wednesday. - RAY STERN
Protesters with anti-police signs began showing up to the Mesa police headquarters just after 5 p.m. on Wednesday.
Ray Stern
Other officers then dragged Johnson to the ground. Jones' narration of the fight ends when he reports that Johnson was handcuffed, and he begins discussing his interview with Reyes.

In a supplemental report, another officer describes how he came out of the elevator to see Johnson being tackled by other officers, and how he helped handcuff the suspect. Johnson called the officers "pussies" and "bitches" while resisting arrest, the officer wrote. Johnson asked the officers to take off their badges and fight him.

While moving Johnson to the elevator, the officer wrote, spit flew from Johnson's mouth as Johnson yelled. The officer said he said Johnson "curled his lips" in preparation to spit at him.

"When I observed this, I pushed the right side of his head with the palm of my hand" into the elevator door, the officer wrote. He told fellow officers to retrieve a spit mask and put it on Johnson, which they did.

The body-cam video shows clearly that Johnson resisted the officers and tried to act tough, but whether he deserved the treatment cops gave him is less certain. Johnson never appears to strike at the officers. He accused them of "excessive" force.

"If you had just stayed calm, this wouldn't be happening, would it?" an officer asks him.

"Get a book!" Johnson yells back, possibly referring to his legal rights. "Y'all did the wrong thing to the person," he adds, laughing.

After the officer accuses Johnson of spitting, the cops tell Johnson he'll be taken back to the ground and fitted with the spit mask. He insists he was calm before the officers swarmed him.

"Listen to you mama," officers tell him.

Back at police headquarters, in the jail intake, a technician noted that Johnson's body contained many "red marks" and he also had a small cut on his side.

In their police report, officers suggested charges of disorderly conduct and hindering for Johnson.

Benjamin Taylor, a civil rights attorney who's representing Johnson, said he's planning a 3 p.m. news conference at a Mesa church on Thursday.

"The body-camera footage is horrific," Taylor said. "They should not have punched. Mr. Johnson in the face and attacked him."

New Times will update this article with more information when it's received.

Below: Statement by Mesa PD (added on June 7), one more body-cam video, plus a supplemental report describing the arrest.

Use of Force – Incident

On May 30, 2018 Pastor Andre Miller, a Mesa resident, contacted Chief Batista regarding a surveillance video depicting a use of force incident. The Chief immediately initiated an internal investigation by our Professional Standards Unit. Four members involved in the incident (one Sergeant and three Officers) were removed from active duty and placed on administrative leave pending the results of the investigation.

The incident in question occurred on May 23, 2018 when officers were called to 701 E. Main regarding a Domestic Disturbance with a firearm in the apartment. A female caller advised that her ex-boyfriend was at the apartment with a second male subject and was trying to force his way into the apartment. Officers arrived a short time later and detained both male subjects. The males were later identified as 20-year-old Erick Reyes (the ex-boyfriend) and 33-year-old Robert Johnson. Johnson was charged with Disorderly Conduct and Hindering Prosecution. Reyes was charged with Disorderly Conduct DV and Possession of Drug Paraphernalia.

During their contact with Mr. Johnson, a use of force incident occurred which was captured on surveillance footage from the apartment as well as multiple body worn camera angles. The surveillance footage was released yesterday (06/05/18) along with Chief Batista conducting on camera interviews with multiple local news agencies about this incident.

In these interviews Chief Batista confirmed three officers and a sergeant were removed from active duty and placed on administrative leave. Chief Batista spoke about a special directive ordering a prohibition on face, head, and neck strikes unless there is active aggression being exhibited by an individual toward the officer. He discussed his vision for the culture he wants within Mesa Police to include communication, respect, and professionalism in every encounter inclusive of a review of policy, procedure and training.

We have released the police report and body camera footage of the incident. An internal investigation is underway. 

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.