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La Mesa police won’t seek prosecution in controversial arrest

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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.

Police had accused Amaurie Johnson of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest, but said Friday they would not seek to prosecute him.

La Mesa police will not seek charges against a 23-year-old black man whose confrontational arrest by a white officer last week sparked controversy amid the nationwide upheaval over police violence.

An officer detained Amaurie Johnson of San Diego on May 28 near the Grossmont Transit Center on suspicion of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest, accusations Johnson denied.

The confrontation between Johnson and Officer Matthew Dages was recorded by Johnson’s friend and posted to social media. City leaders and police officials released body-camera footage of the arrest earlier this week.

“After a full review of all of the evidence in the criminal investigation against Amaurie Johnson ... the La Mesa Police Department has decided it will not be seeking prosecution of Mr. Johnson on any of the alleged misdemeanor charges,” La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez said in a news release Friday afternoon.

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Johnson’s arrest, the video of which circulated widely on social media, added fuel to the anger that built last week over the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Johnson’s arrest also prompted, in part, two protests in La Mesa last week, including a peaceful demonstration Friday, and a second protest Saturday that began peacefully before devolving into rioting and looting.

During a media briefing Wednesday, Vasquez said Dages initiated 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 by giving him his name and date of birth.

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The bystander video and body-camera footage released Wednesday show the officer grabbing and shoving Johnson in the moments before he was detained. Video captured by Dages’ 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.

Vasquez declined to comment Wednesday on the specifics of Dages’ claims that Johnson was smoking or that he assaulted the officer. La Mesa city officials had previously said Dages was placed on leave pending an independent, outside investigation into the incident.

Amaurie Johnson, left, with activist Tasha Williamson.
Amaurie Johnson, left, at a news conference Wednesday as activist Tasha Williamson speaks after the release of police body-camera video.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Joined by other community members who attended Wednesday’s news conference, Johnson expressed disappointment, saying he did not hear any apologies from officials during their remarks. Social justice advocate Tasha Williamson called for Dages to be fired and for Johnson not to be charged with any crime.

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The video of the incident shows Dages 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 says in the video she understands what Johnson 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.”

Updates:

7:37 PM, Jun. 05, 2020: This story was updated with additional details.

7:30 PM, Jun. 05, 2020: This story was updated with additional information.


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