Robert Johnson Sues Mesa Cops Over Brutal Beating Caught on Video

Robert Johnson Jr. (right) and lawyer Joel Robbins at a news conference in June.
Robert Johnson Jr. (right) and lawyer Joel Robbins at a news conference in June. Ray Stern

Robert Johnson, the man whose brutal beating on video by Mesa police officers sparked international outcry, filed a federal lawsuit against the city and three Mesa cops on Friday.

Johnson is suing the city and its officers for excessive force, wrongful arrest, negligence, assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He is seeking a jury trial and nearly $2 million in compensation.

The events began on May 23, 2018, when 35-year-old Johnson accompanied a friend who was picking up his things from his ex-girlfriend's apartment. While there, someone called 911 and alleged that Johnson's friend had tried to force his way into the apartment. As the two left, they ran into Mesa police, who separated them.

As video of the incident shows, Johnson initially stood by the balcony as he was told, then moved toward the wall when the officer instructed him to do so. Johnson was unarmed. Mesa police officer Jhonte Jones told Johnson to sit on the floor. Instead, Johnson leaned on the wall, half-sitting. The officers circled in on Johnson and told him to sit all the way down.

Within seconds, the officers grab the man's arms and begin throwing punches at Johnson. Jones can be seen in body cam footage kneeing Johnson twice in the stomach and punching him six times in the head as cops repeatedly scream at Johnson to "just sit down." (It does not appear that Johnson even could sit down as other officers were holding onto him while Jones punched.) Another Mesa cop, Rudy Monarrez, also throws a punch, hitting Johnson in the face.

"You see what happens? You see what happens?" One officer says as they force Johnson to the ground.

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Robert Johnson Jr. (right) and lawyer Joel Robbins at a news conference in June.
Ray Stern
Mesa police hog-tied Johnson, wrapped a "spit-mask" around his face, and carried him outside. Johnson was charged with disorderly conduct and hindering police. Within weeks, the Mesa city prosecutor dropped the charges against Johnson.

Now, Johnson's attorneys say police had no probable cause for his arrest and that Jones and Monarrez committed assault and battery when they pummeled Johnson. Joel Robbins, Johnson's attorney, says the beating left Johnson with serious injuries, emotional distress, and medical expenses.

"The video and still images present a striking contrast — the violent aggression of the Mesa Police officers against Robert's incredible restraint," wrote Robbins in a notice of claim filed with the city last November. Robert is repeatedly grabbed, pushed, punched, and kicked. Robert's arms stay at his sides. He does not fight back. Robert never raises his hands. He does nothing but absorb the officers' blows."

Mesa Police Chief Ramon Batista released the body cam footage and condemned the actions of his officers at a press conference last June. "I'm angry and deeply disappointed by what I saw in those videos," Batista said, referring also to the video of Mesa police assaulting a handcuffed 15-year-old boy. "It's unacceptable and it needs to stop immediately."

In August 2018, Scottsdale police and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office cleared the Mesa officers of any criminal wrongdoing following an investigation. But the officers will be disciplined: In April, Mesa police said misconduct allegations against Jhone Jones, Rudy Manarrez, Ernesto Calderon, and Timothy Wahlberg (three of whom are named in Johnson's lawsuit) were sustained. Monarrez was given a written reprimand.

Wahlberg was given a "non-discipline corrective action." Both men have resumed their usual work with Mesa police. The consequences for Jones and Calderon are unclear. Both have filed appeals, so Mesa police spokesperson Irene Mahoney is currently prohibited from disclosing the details of their recommended discipline.

Batista's decision to release the footage, condemn his officers' actions, bring in an outside agency to conduct the internal affairs investigation, and discipline the officers involved all have earned the ire of many of his officers.

On Friday, the Mesa Police Association announced it would be holding a "no confidence" vote against Batista. Officers will vote on whether they want to remove Batista as chief, then bring the results to the mayor and city council on May 17.

The vote follows a survey of MPD employees initiated by the Mesa Police Association and shared with Phoenix New Times. The survey includes dozens of anonymous officers from employees of the Mesa Police Department. In the comments, officers show a chilling disdain for accountability, and they heap scorn on reforms that could improve police-community relations and decrease the likelihood that incidents like the one with Johnson happen again.

"The chief is a liberal snowflake who cares more about public image than his officers," wrote one officer.

One of Batista's most critical changes comes too little too late for Johnson. When Arizona Department of Public Safety director Frank Milstead was chief of the Mesa Police Department, he encouraged officers to remove old use-of-force complaints from their internal affairs files.

"You could not even view the past history of an officer's use of force," said Rick Romley, a former Maricopa County Attorney who was brought in last year to oversee MPD internal investigations. "That's outrageous. You need to be able to see if there's a pattern with these officers."
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Meg O'Connor was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from April 2019 to April 2020.