The Phoenix Police Department appears to be pursuing criminal charges against police officer Christopher Meyer, who was caught on video threatening to shoot an unarmed black man in the head. The possibility of charges was revealed in a text message from police Commander Steve Martos and statements made by attorneys representing the family threatened by Meyer.
Cellphone footage of Meyer's explosive encounter with 22-year-old Dravon Ames, his pregnant fiancée, Iesha Harper, and their two young children went viral last month. The footage made international headlines and prompted a deluge of criticism against the department. Meyer is currently on a "non-enforcement assignment" while the department's professional standards bureau investigates the incident. But it seems the department's Special Investigations Detail is investigating Meyer as well.
"Good evening, the Phoenix Police Department, as a matter of routine practice, reached out to the Ames family through their attorney to determine if they wished to lodge a criminal complaint against our officer," wrote Steve Martos in a text message sent on July 3.
"Our Special Investigations Detail reached out approximately two weeks ago to determine their intent. Detectives did not get a response until today. We have been advised the family may be considering making a criminal complaint however, they have yet to speak with detectives. We will provide updates when available," Martos said.
The text message was obtained by former Phoenix police union president Mark Spencer, who shared the image in a post on Facebook. Spencer says he obtained the text through a public records request sent in his capacity as a contributor to Judicial Watch, a far-right activist law firm. Phoenix New Times has also filed a public records request for all digital communications sent by city employees regarding the Ames incident.
Sergeant Vince Lewis, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Police Department, confirmed the text message's authenticity to New Times. Lewis said the possibility of a criminal complaint "is still undetermined."
Ames did not respond to a voicemail and text message seeking comment, but his attorneys, Sandra Slaton and Tom Horne, confirmed they had been contacted by the Phoenix Police Department and that they told Phoenix police the family does want to pursue criminal charges.
"They called and asked if we wanted the county attorney to prosecute the officers involved and we said yes, so they're going to start doing witness interviews and that sort of thing," Horne told New Times.
"There is obviously an assault [charge] there, but I don't know what else they're looking into," said Horne, a former Arizona Attorney General. "The police department will do an investigation, then report their findings to the county attorney, who can file charges."
"The family has requested prosecution of the officers involved," Slaton said in a separate phone call with New Times.
Horne says he doesn't think Ames has been interviewed by Phoenix police yet. Interviewing witnesses, especially the people who would make the complaint, is one of the preliminary steps in a criminal investigation.
On May 27, Phoenix police followed Ames and Harper after they left a Family Dollar on North 36th Street. Police allege the family shoplifted when their 4-year-old daughter walked out of the dollar store with a doll and Ames took a pair of underwear. Police followed Ames into a nearby parking lot, where the couple had stopped to leave their daughter with her babysitter.
Phoenix police have claimed that the family failed to pull over, but no lights or sirens can be seen or heard emanating from the first police vehicle in the videos.
Another angle of the incident filmed by a different resident of the apartment complex where Ames and his pregnant fiancee were dropping off their kids with a babysitter show a Phoenix police officer trying to yank the child from the mother's arms. pic.twitter.com/pTb07lZAXD— Meg O'Connor (@megoconnor13) June 12, 2019
As the video begins, Ames, who is in his car with Harper and their two young children, repeatedly states, "My hands are up! My hands are up!" as Meyer yells, "Get your fucking hands up!" over and over.
Although Ames and his family appear to be complying, Meyer screams at Ames, "I'm going to put a fucking cap in your fucking head!"
"It doesn't open, I promise it doesn't open!" Ames says, attempting to explain to the officer that the locks on his car do not work correctly.
"You're gonna fucking get shot!" Meyer replies, his voice cracking.
"Get out the fucking car!" Meyer's partner yells, holding the family at gunpoint.
"I have two kids!" says Harper, who is clearly pregnant and holding a 1-year-old child in her arms.
"I don't give a shit," the officer responds, still pointing the gun at Harper.
Once Ames gets out of the car, Meyer shoves him up against his police vehicle, continues to scream at Ames with his face right next to Ames' ear, and kicks Ames' legs apart.
After handing Ames off to another officer, Meyer walks back over to Harper and screams, "When I tell you to put your hands up, you put your hands up," while thrusting his finger into her face, then attempts to yank the baby out of her arms. The baby shrieks as Meyer yanks her.
Meyer then grabs onto Harper's arm and tells her to place the baby on the scorching hot pavement. One of the residents of the apartment complex who filmed the encounter offers to take the children as police handcuffs Harper. As police lead Harper away, one of her children can be heard yelling, "Mommy! Mommy!" and crying hysterically.
Ames and Harper were not charged with anything, despite their rough detention. Video of the incident has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times and made headlines in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Online, many said they found the incident disturbing, and left comments on the Phoenix Police Department's Facebook urging police to fire the officers involved and seek criminal charges against Meyer.
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It's unclear whether the criminal complaint involves more than one officer. The footage and police report show that Meyer was the main aggressor, but his partner, who has yet to be identified, also held the family at gunpoint. Martos' text mentioned that Phoenix police had asked the family whether "they wished to lodge a criminal complaint against our officer," but Horne and Slaton said the family wants to "prosecute the officers involved."
Meyer's actions that day meet the definition of aggravated assault under Arizona law, since Meyer intentionally placed another person in reasonable apprehension of imminent physical injury while using a deadly weapon. He also kicked Ames' legs apart and forcibly pulled on both Harper's arm and her 1-year-old baby's arm.
"I think a prosecutor who wanted to see assault in that wouldn't have very much trouble finding grounds for charging an assault," said Michael Saks, professor of law at ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. "But when it comes to police, prosecutors often see things differently. Sometimes they give the police too much benefit of the doubt, often because they work with the police often and they want to keep the police happy."
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office did not respond when asked whether it would consider prosecuting the officers in this case.