If you’ve seen body camera or building surveillance footage of Mesa Arizona Police Department officers beating Robert Johnson, an unarmed man, you probably just ignored it. It’s not the first, last or worse case. These headlines have become commonplace in the American psyche. Why? The language we use to describe police actions can easily mask the reality of life in America. The police call it use of force. The media often uses the term excessive force. The reality, however, is much simpler . . . this is unchecked criminal assault. It’s violence sanctioned by the police.
Law enforcement professionals seldom use the term “force” in their description of their actions . . . unless speaking about “deadly force”. Everything short of deadly force is instinctive when encountering citizens. Is escalation an officer’s action or reaction? The answer to that question lies in how we view law enforcement officers. It’s critical that we understand that officers are individuals first and officers second.
Mesa Police Chief Ramon Batista says he’s angry and deeply disappointed after seeing the footage. Batista said. “It’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop immediately.” The officers, however, remain employed – pending “a comprehensive and fully independent investigation”. I don’t believe Batista or any police administrator is sincere when they deliver these sound bites. This language only serves to avoid firing bad cops.
I’m equally angry and disappointed after viewing the body camera and building surveillance footage. My feelings, however, stem from a vastly different reason than the police chief’s. What I viewed on the video footage was a violent attack that always causes the police to make an immediate arrest of the attacker. These attackers, however, went home to wait for the police to investigate. And Chief Batista has video evidence of the attack! I don’t see how he could not see the criminal offense in his police officers’ actions.
The reality, however, is much simpler . . . this is unchecked criminal assault. It’s violence sanctioned by the police.
The immediate narrative was Johnson’s failure to comply with instructions to sit on the floor. After he was violently attacked, Johnson was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and hindering police. No evidence has surfaced indicating that Johnson’s conduct included anything more than calmly refusing to sit on the floor as directed by police officers. Furthermore, what was Johnson hindering, a violent attack by the police? The charges against Johnson were later dismissed by Municipal Judge Elizabeth P. Arriola. My opinion: the video evidence directly contradicts the false information in official reports filed by the officers.
Let’s consider, for a moment, how the department would respond if Johnson violently attacked a civilian . . . police officers. It is unlikely that Johnson would live through an encounter with police. Yet, not one of the officers involved was arrested. All went home; each remains employed.
If the police department wants this to stop this type of activity immediately the chief’s actions must match his anger and disappointment. So far, there are two clear and convincing facts. First, this is a case of police officers committing an unwarranted violent attack. Second, filing false reports negatively impacts an officer’s credibility when testifying in court, thus seriously diminishing that officer’s ability to effectively perform the work required. Arrest of these officers was warranted as a first step if anything is to change. Dismissal from the police force should also be mandatory.
Recruitment, not retention, is where law enforcement must focus. The fact that police officers are not arrested following violent criminal activity is definitely not a move toward reform in these departments. There is little corrective action if violent officers retain their jobs and simply go home on paid leave. Reports indicate that Chief Batista has two other Mesa officers from the same unit placed on administrative leave for similar violent attacks. That indicates a bigger problem at the Mesa Police Department. A problem with its chief executive.
It is time for Chief Batista (and other executives around the country) to face some realities. The first is accepting the fact that violence against another cannot be sanctioned by a badge. Next, he must move immediately with the dismissal of these police officers. Then he must begin to speak honestly with the citizens he has pledged to protect and serve. He must abandon the thin blue lie. “Independent investigation” or “internal investigation” is police language used to justify retention of officers who, in my opinion, are criminals. Finally, Chief Batista must realize that a commitment to building a team of trustworthy public servants begins with recruitment. That would be true reform.
“This in no way represents the whole work that is done every day,” Batista told reporters. “They’re human beings and certainly at first glance this looks like a mistake, it doesn’t look right. And it’s my job, it’s our job to collectively investigate and find the answers to this.”
Let’s contrast this travesty to the current push to reform the bail system in America. The poorest, most vulnerable Americans don’t get a chance to go home and continue to earn money. More often than not, they are jailed just based on information in police reports. Some are jailed for years without ever being convicted of a crime simply because they can’t afford bail. Here, we see those charged with protecting us from the scourge of criminal activity free of those chains even though they are at the very heart of the problem. My anger and disappointment is rooted in the realization that we accept this behavior from law enforcement executives like Chief Batista with ease because of the language used to describe it.
While Chief Batista’s statements point to an emotional reaction to these events, he also has a legal obligation to consider whether his officers’ actions were reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them. In other words, making a determination as to whether their actions were “objectively reasonable” without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. An objective viewing of Johnson’s actions clearly shows that he was neither an immediate threat to the officers’ presence, resisting arrest, a flight risk or attempting to escape custody.
“It’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop immediately.”
Chief Batista should know, from the early days of his training at the academy, that what he saw on the available footage can only be described as an unprovoked, unwarranted violent assault – a criminal act. As the chief executive officer in that department, Chief Batista has the obligation to make the judgement call we hear law enforcement talk about all the time. He should emphatically state that this behavior goes so far past what police describe as the use of force continuum that arrest and dismissal are his only options. Failure to do so equates to being, at best, an accessory after the fact.
Make no mistake, we shouldn’t vilify Chief Batista as the only law enforcement executive failing a community. Unchecked police violence and the protective language used by law enforcement executives to hoodwink communities is disgraceful. It has become far too commonplace throughout the country. Yes, this must stop. Why shouldn’t reform start with the executives that lead the police departments and sheriff offices throughout America.