Teri Figueroa, David Hernandez
The San Diego Union-Tribune
La Mesa city and police officials on Wednesday released police body camera video of a controversial arrest last week of a 23-year-old black man at a trolley station, an incident that spurred calls for police reform and social justice.
Amaurie Johnson was detained near the Grossmont Transit Center last Thursday on suspicion of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest, claims Johnson denies.
A six-minute video captured by a friend of Johnson’s was shared on social media, bringing attention to the case and prompting in part a large protest in La Mesa on Saturday. The bystander video and footage released Wednesday show the officer grabbing and shoving Johnson in the moments before he was detained.
Video captured by the arresting officer’s body worn-camera does not show Johnson assaulting the officer. For about four seconds, as Johnson walks away, he is partially out of the frame. The footage begins once the officer is standing in front of Johnson.
During an afternoon news conference Wednesday, La Mesa police Chief Walt Vasquez said the officer initiated the contact after suspecting Johnson was smoking in the transit station area, which is prohibited. Johnson has said he was not smoking and complied with the officer. He gave the officer his name and date of birth.
Vasquez declined to comment on the specifics of the officer’s claims. He said an investigation into the incident was ongoing and in the meantime the department decided to release the body camera video.
Mayor Mark Arapostathis said an outside investigator will “provide review, make disciplinary policy and recommendations.” He said officials released the video to be “as transparent as possible.”
Vasquez said the officer has been on the La Mesa police force for about three years. He did not identify the officer, but Johnson has identified him as Matt Dages. Video released Wednesday identifies the officer only as Dages.
The department previously remained tight-lipped about the arrest, but had said the officer was placed on leave pending an outside investigation.
Joined by other community members who attended the news conference, Johnson expressed disappointment, saying he did not hear any apologies from officials during their remarks. Social justice advocate Tasha Williamson called Dages to be fired and for Johnson to not be charged with any crimes.
The video of the incident shows a white officer detaining Johnson. He repeatedly grabs and pushes Johnson, forcing him to sit on a bench and saying Johnson had smacked his hand.
Within 35 seconds, other officers arrive and help handcuff Johnson.
As he sits in handcuffs, Johnson expresses frustration, says he had been waiting for a friend and says, “I already know what the issue is. I’m black as (expletive) out here.” He later says, “Why am I still here? I am doing nothing wrong. I am being a citizen.”
One of the officers who responded to help arrest the man says in the video she understands what he is feeling. Johnson says to the female officer, “I understand that you are being empathetic, and I appreciate that. But you really don’t get it.”
Social justice advocate Geneviéve Jones-Wright said at the Wednesday news conference that Johnson’s case is “the epitome of why it is so hard to be black in America.”
The La Mesa encounter happened two days after video emerged of Minnesota police officer with his knee on the next of a handcuffed black man for several minutes, even as the man, George Floyd, pleaded that he could not breathe. Floyd died, and images of the encounter sparked nationwide protests — and riots— against police treatment of people of color.
Locally, the first area to see protests following Floyds death happened in La Mesa, in part because of the new video of the arrest. The protesters shut down streets and the freeway. The gathering turned riotous, with a flag burned, windows broken, stores looted and two banks burned to the ground. One protester, a 59-year-old woman, was shot in the head with what looked like a beanbag round, and she remains hospitalized in intensive care.
Last week, while talking about police and race relations, Gov. Gavin Newsom referenced the incident: “We’ve made a lot of progress in this state, but my gosh. I was reminded again even this morning, incident down in San Diego — young man on a bench.”
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