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‘At first glance this looks like a mistake’: Video shows Arizona officers beating unarmed man

The Mesa Police Department released surveillance video on June 6 that shows three officers beating an unarmed man in the hallway of an apartment building. (Video: Reuters)

Four police officers from a Phoenix suburb have been put on paid administrative leave after video showed them beating an unarmed man last month, the Mesa Police Department said.

On Tuesday, the department released a 15-minute video of the incident, which took place May 23, in an effort to be transparent after recent high-profile cases where its officers’ use of force was questioned.

The footage shows four men in uniform frisking a man in a gray shirt as he stands near a railing on the upper floor of an apartment complex, holding a phone to his ear. The officers appear to give direction to the man — later identified as 33-year-old Robert Johnson — at which point he walks toward a wall.

Moments later, the officers have Johnson backed up into a corner near an elevator, then take him down. Johnson does not appear to resist. In the video, at least two officers are shown punching Johnson several times in the head; one officer pummels him on the left side of his face five times in rapid succession, before landing a final right hook that causes Johnson to slump down to the ground.

While this is happening, the elevator door opens and two more officers emerge and surround Johnson.

Mesa Police Chief Ramon Batista told several local news outlets Tuesday night that he first became aware of the video after a civilian reported it to him about a week after the incident, and that four of the officers involved were placed on leave immediately pending an investigation. He did not identify the officers placed on leave or specify whether the others in the video were also under investigation.

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The officers had been responding to a call about a woman in distress and found Johnson and 20-year-old Erick Reyes, Batista told the Arizona Republic. While police were questioning Reyes, they asked Johnson to stay behind; the incident escalated after Johnson didn’t sit down when he was told, he added.

“When the person didn’t sit down, our officers then engaged in use of force to make him sit down,” Batista told the newspaper. “I don’t feel that our officers were at their best. I don’t feel that this situation needed to go in the way that it went.”

Johnson was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct and hindering, and Reyes was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct and possessing drug paraphernalia, the Republic reported.

The video released Tuesday was recorded by a surveillance camera in the apartment complex and does not contain audio. Mesa police have not released any body-camera video that might also have been recorded.

Advocates for Johnson blasted the officers’ actions, as well as what they called “the culture of violence at the Mesa Police Department,” in a statement released Tuesday night by pastor Andre Miller and attorneys Benjamin Taylor and Joel Robbins. They said Johnson had been cooperative and following police instructions when officers began assaulting him — and that the incident would have gone unnoticed if surveillance cameras had not recorded video.

“We hope and pray that the Mesa Police Department will accept responsibility for the misconduct of these officers,” the statement read. “Mesa must take concrete steps to ensure that culpable officers are disciplined, retrained, or dismissed. The Mesa Police Department must develop a law enforcement culture that meets community and constitutional norms and ensures that police and citizens go home safely after police interactions.”

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Mesa City Council member Jeremy Whittaker said the video was “appalling” at first glance.

“It would be irresponsible of me to convict these officers in the court of public opinion before they are guaranteed their constitutional right to a fair trial as I understand there is a criminal investigation,” Whittaker wrote. “I am eager for due process to take place. We hired Chief Batista last year to focus on making sure our police department is fairly serving the public. Leadership change takes time and I have full faith he is focusing on the issues that plague our community.”

The Mesa Police Department was thrust into the national spotlight recently after a high-profile incident involving questionable use of force. In December, former Mesa police officer Philip Brailsford was acquitted of second-degree murder charges in the January 2016 shooting of Daniel Shaver. After the ruling, a judge released graphic video from Brailsford’s body camera that showed Shaver sobbing, crawling on his hands and knees and begging for his life in the moments before Brailsford shot him multiple times.

In February, the department was also criticized after body-camera footage showed Mesa police violently taking down an 84-year-old grandmother, causing bruises and a black eye.

On Tuesday, Batista said he had instituted new policy that would prohibit officers from striking a person’s face or head unless that person is fighting them.

“This is no way represents the whole work that is done every day,” Batista told 12 News, of the newly released video. “They’re human beings. Certainly, at first glance this looks like a mistake. And it doesn’t look right and it’s my job — it’s our job — to collectively investigate and find the answers to this.”

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