Johnnie Rush was trying to get home from a long shift at the Cracker Barrel.
Then he got stopped for jaywalking — an encounter with the police department in Asheville, N.C., that ultimately left Rush with a bloodied face after an officer punched him multiple times, used a stun gun on him and put him in a chokehold on the ground.
On Monday, the city of Asheville released nine videos from the officers’ body-worn cameras showing the incident from various angles while Rush screamed, “Help!” and “I can’t breathe,” echoing the cry of Eric Garner, an African American who died in 2014 after a white New York City police officer put him in an apparent chokehold during an arrest.
The officer who repeatedly struck Rush in the head, Christopher Hickman, resigned in January, just before he was terminated for violating the use-of-force policy, according to city officials. He was charged in March with felony assault by strangulation and misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury and communicating threats for the August 2017 incident. His lawyer says he’s going to trial and that a jury will acquit him.
“What happened in these recordings is unacceptable and does not meet the standards of the Asheville Police Department, the values of the City of Asheville, or the expectations of Asheville residents,” city officials said in a written statement posted with the videos Monday. “Christopher Hickman’s actions violated the Asheville Police Department’s vision that all people are treated with dignity and respect. These actions have damaged the progress that the Asheville Police Department has made in the last several years in improving community trust.”
According to the videos, Hickman and a police officer in training, Verino Ruggiero, first spot Rush walking through the parking lot of a business, which they later describe as trespassing. Then they see him cross the street without using a crosswalk. The officers follow him to a nearby convenience store, then wait for him to buy some beer before confronting him outside the store about the alleged jaywalking. Ruggiero gave him a warning and let him go, but moments later he and Hickman say on video that they see Rush jaywalking “again and again,” which is not captured.
“Rush, Rush,” Ruggiero says, walking toward him, “I just told you. … You just committed four crimes in a row. Just because you don’t agree it’s a crime doesn’t mean it’s not a crime.”
“All I’m trying to do is go home, man,” Rush tells him, as the two go back and forth about the problem with walking in the street. “I’m tired. I just got off work.”
Ruggiero tells him he has two options: He can either arrest him or write him a ticket.
“I asked you to use the crosswalk. Why is that so hard?” Ruggiero says.
“You’re right,” Rush says. “It’s not, sir. It’s not. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You’re right.”
Ruggiero asks Rush to look at him, but Rush says he can hear him just fine. Hickman chimes in to say, “Just write him a ticket. He wants to act like a punk.”
In a moment though, Hickman changes his mind. After Rush remarks that the cops apparently have nothing better to do than harass someone about walking, Hickman darts toward him, telling him to put his hands behind his back. When Hickman tries to grab him, Rush backs away — then starts running. He crosses the street, then apparently decides to stop fleeing as Hickman and Ruggiero approach.
“He thinks it’s funny,” Hickman says. “You know what’s funny is you’re gonna get f‑‑‑ed up hardcore. Get on the ground.”
Hickman presses Rush’s head onto the ground, as he and Ruggiero repeatedly instruct him to put his hands behind his back. Rush continues squirming, yelling, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Then the punching starts. Hickman hits him seven to 10 times.
“Oh, my God!” Rush yells.
Hickman reaches for his stun gun and zaps him. Rush then tries to grab the stun gun from Hickman while it’s pointed at him, prompting Hickman to hit him in the head with it “as if it was a club … about as hard as I could,” Hickman would soon tell his supervisor on the scene. “I beat the s‑‑‑ out of his head. I’m not gonna lie about that.”
Hickman then begins choking him from behind while other officers grab his arms. “Help! Help!” Rush yells.
Finally, Rush is in handcuffs. As police escort him to a cop car, he tells Hickman, “You ain’t have to punch me in my face for no reason.”
“You didn’t have to make me,” Hickman says. He adds: “Don’t look at me with your spitty blood face.”
When Sgt. Lisa Taube arrives on scene to take each side of the story, from Hickman and Rush, Rush acknowledges that he shouldn’t have run, “but that don’t give him the right to hit me like that,” he says. “What would have happened if he would’ve killed me? Then what?”
Taube is silent for a moment, before telling him, “Okay. You were in the wrong.”
Though the incident happened in August, it wasn’t until a portion of the body-cam footage was leaked to the Asheville Citizen-Times on Feb. 28 that the fallout escalated. Asheville City Manager Gary Jackson was removed from his post by City Council in March following calls for him to leave office from community groups such as Black Lives Matter.
“Black Lives Matter is pretty much fed up with people making excuses for the blatant anti-black racism practices in this city,” Sharon Smith, of the local BLM chapter, said at a March City Council meeting, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times. “We demand it stop immediately, beginning with the city officials who have obviously abused their authority.”
Taube was also disciplined for poor performance in the way that she handled the interview with Rush and was ordered to undergo remedial training, according to the city’s statement. Ruggiero was “immediately reassigned to another training officer, and has given every indication that he understands that Hickman’s actions were wholly unacceptable, and not up to the standards of a modern, community-oriented police agency,” the city said.
Hickman was charged with the felony and misdemeanor assault cases on March 9, though his attorney said he believes a jury will acquit him.
“It’s unfortunate that so many individuals have rushed to judge my client,” attorney Thomas Amburgey said in a statement following Hickman’s court appearance this Monday, according to the Citizen-Times. “I am confident that when a fair and impartial jury hears the whole story that Mr. Hickman will be acquitted. Any notion that my client had any criminal intent to harm Mr. Rush is without basis.”
The charges against Rush — impeding traffic, trespassing, assault on a government official and resisting a public officer — were ultimately dropped last fall.
By the end of the night he was arrested, he and Hickman seemed to almost reach an understanding, as shown in the body camera footage. As they walked to the police cruiser outside the hospital, where Rush had been taken for treatment, Hickman let Rush out of his handcuffs to smoke a cigarette, offering him a light.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Rush told Hickman.
“We didn’t either,” Hickman said. “What’s done is done. We’re all gonna go through our lives and this will never happen again and we’ll probably never see either one of us again.”
Still, the two meandered back to talking about the arrest, and Rush still couldn’t grasp why Hickman kept punching him and choking him.
He asked, how was I supposed to put my hands behind my back “when you’re choking me?”
“I didn’t start choking you until I probably punched you 10 times,” Hickman said.
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