A police chief in Arizona has placed four officers on leave after a disturbing surveillance video surfaced showing them surrounding and violently beating a black man to the ground.
Mesa Police Chief Ramon Batista said Wednesday that Andre Miller, a pastor in the area, contacted him about footage from an apartment complex's surveillance camera.
Miller, '"Hey, this looks very alarming, and I need you to look at it,'" Batista told Fox 10 News. "I examined it, and I immediately opened up an investigation."
Batista also released the 20-minute recording to the public as part of an internal investigation.
The footage, recorded late on the night of May 23, shows a man—later identified by his attorneys as Robert Johnson—standing against a rail in his apartment building talking on the phone. Another man can be seen sitting against a wall talking to an officer. An elevator door then opens, and several more officers emerge and approach Johnson and frisk him.
Officers did not find any weapons on Johnson, Batista noted in a statement, and asked the 33-year-old to move away from the railing, stand by the wall behind him, and then sit down.
As the video shows, Johnson complied and, still looking at his cellphone, leaned against the wall next to the elevator. Immediately, four officers swarmed around him, grabbed his body, knee him in the gut, and started to shove and punch him in the head and face, knocking him to the floor. They then dragged and handcuffed him. Later on, an officer takes his head and slams it into the elevator door.
According to Batista, Johnson did not follow officers' orders to sit down. But the police chief conceded that the use of force was unnecessary.
"I don't feel that our officers were at their best," he said. "I don't feel this situation needed to go the way that it went."
A spokesperson for the Mesa Police Department confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the four cops in the video — three officers and a sergeant — have now been placed administrative leave and that the department is investigating the incident. The chief did not learn of the footage until a week after the incident, the department said.
Johnson was arrested for disorderly conduct and hindering prosecution. His companion, Erik Reyes, was arrested for possession and concealment of drug paraphernalia.
In a more detailed statement Wednesday, Batista said that the officers were responding to a domestic disturbance "with a firearm in the apartment."
The department also made public footage from the officers' body cameras, in which Johnson can be heard cursing at the officers after they handcuff him. In one clip, officers tell Johnson to sit down; when he does not, they become violent.
A 20-year-old woman had called police shortly before midnight on May 23 and said that her ex-boyfriend, Reyes, was trying to "force his way into" her apartment. According to a police report obtained by BuzzFeed News Wednesday, Reyes had caused a disturbance earlier that night, and had told officers they were "lucky that he didn't have his 'strap,' which is slang for a gun." When he returned, the report said, he was accompanied by Johnson, his friend.
In the lengthy report, recorded in the early hours of May 24, officers detailed a back-and-forth with Johnson, claiming he repeatedly refused orders to sit down after being searched for a knife he had said he was carrying, and acted "confrontational and verbally defiant."
Officers wrote that they interpreted Johnson's body language as aggressive, like he "was preparing for a physical altercation," because his shoulders were "bowed forward slightly" and his head was nodded. In the video, Johnson shuffles over to the wall and leans against it, eyes still trained on his phone.
One officer wrote that "it appeared Johnson was trying not to sit down in order to retain a position of physical advantage by remaining on his feet. My goal was to put Johnson at a position of disadvantage by getting him to sit down."
When Johnson declined to sit, officers resorted to physical force, and as the video shows, proceeded to beat the suspect to the ground.
Although an officer defends the use of force in the report, claiming that "Johnson bound off the wall toward me," the video shows him standing still during the encounter, looking at his phone, until he is quickly wrestled to the floor — apparently contradicting the officers claim.
"Johnson continued to actively resist officers attempting to gain control of his arms," the report goes on. "Johnson's arms remained tense and his body twisted in an effort to neutralize the forces applied by officers.
Benjamin Taylor, one of the attorneys representing Johnson, balked at the police narrative, saying that his client "was cooperative and following police instructions."
"You've seen the video. He was leaning against the wall it is ridiculous for them to say that. He's already knocked out how can he be resisting," Taylor told BuzzFeed News Tuesday. "They searched him before. They knew he was not a threat. They attacked him merely seconds after he went over there and he couldn't do anything."
"It was six officers against one unarmed person," he went on. "For them to say he was a threat is an insult to their department and the community of Mesa."
Johnson is still undergoing treatment for the "major injuries" he incurred during the beating, Taylor said, including chest wounds, bruised ribs, head trauma, and a concussion.
"He's doing terribly. These injuries could have a lifetime effect," Taylor said. "He did not deserve the beating he took from that many officers. Mesa police have a culture of hurting and shooting and killing people, and this is just another incident that shows how badly this department needs to be cleaned up."
In response to the video and ensuing outrage over the officers' conduct, Batista announced Wednesday that he has instituted policy changes to "limit the opportunity where we will apply strikes to a person's face or head absent the supporting conditions for that to occur," and ensure more "stringent reporting of these events."
The Mesa Police Association, which represents the officers, defended their conduct, saying that the footage that has been made public does not accurately or fully represent the encounter.
"The Mesa Police Association feels it is grossly inappropriate to release a portion of the video with no audio that does not include the full context of the encounter," the union said in a statement. "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.'"
It is the latest in a series of controversies the Mesa Police Department has faced over officer conduct. In February, officers took down and injured an 84-year-old grandmother while responding to a wellness check, in an incident that went viral after the woman's granddaughter posted photos to Facebook, prompting an internal review. The agency was also the subject of a 2016 investigation by the US Department of Justice after a Mesa police officer shot and killed a man who was crawling on the ground. The officer was acquitted of murder.
"Our new chief had been trying to get a handle on this department," Miller, the pastor who first flagged the video of Johnson, said on Wednesday. "This incident takes us back several steps. Apparently, we haven't turned the corner on this kind of behavior."