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Ex-officer charged with lying defends his account of controversial 2020 La Mesa arrest

Former La Mesa police Officer Matthew Dages appears in an El Cajon courtroom on Aug. 10.
Former La Mesa police Officer Matthew Dages appears in an El Cajon courtroom on Aug. 10. Dages was charged with falsifying a police report in connection with the arrest of Amaurie Johnson in La Mesa last year.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Former La Mesa police Officer Matthew Dages, charged with lying on a police report in connection with a video-recorded arrest that sparked protests in the city east of San Diego, testified Tuesday that he wrote an honest account of the incident.

“Did you lie?” defense attorney Joshua Visco asked Dages.

“No,” the 30-year-old Dages replied from the witness stand.

In the report, Dages wrote that the man he arrested, Amaurie Johnson, had been smoking and balled his fists and took a “bladed stance” — one foot in front of the other at an angle, as if to fight — during the May 2020 incident. The report also states that Johnson struck Dages’ left arm.

Johnson has testified that he was not smoking. He acknowledged he swiped the officer’s hand but said he did not ball his fists or take a fighting stance.

The release comes after a six-minute bystander video of the encounter between a black man and a white police officer spread on social media.

Dages’ testimony in El Cajon Superior Court came as his trial nears an end, with the defendant expected to be cross-examined by the prosecution before both sides deliver their closing arguments Wednesday.

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Dages, who was fired after the incident, could face up to three years in prison if convicted.

His encounter with Johnson drew scrutiny after a viral video showed Dages grabbing and pushing Johnson onto a concrete bench.

The incident happened two days after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Johnson’s arrest and Floyd’s death spurred demonstrations, including a protest in La Mesa that devolved into street violence during which three buildings burned down and looting was reported.

Dages had been on the force for roughly two years at the time of the May 27, 2020, arrest near the Grossmont Transit Center, where he and other officers took part in a trolley fare enforcement operation.

Dages testified that he saw Johnson — standing outside a nearby apartment complex — as soon as he arrived. What drew his attention to Johnson was that he raised an object in his hand to his mouth at least three times while standing in an area where smoking is prohibited, Dages said.

“I thought he was smoking from where I was standing,” Dages said.

Dages said he walked up to Johnson and told him he wasn’t allowed to smoke in the area. Johnson told him he was not smoking.

Dages then asked Johnson whether he lived at the apartment complex. Initially Johnson said yes, but when Dages asked for his apartment number, Johnson said he was waiting for friends, Dages said.

Dages said he then asked Johnson whether he had paid a trolley fare. Johnson tried to walk away, but Dages told him he was not free to leave, Dages said, adding that he decided to detain Johnson for fare evasion.

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

Johnson sat on a concrete bench, but when his friends arrived, he tried to walk away. That’s when Dages grabbed Johnson, who smacked the officers’ arm, Dages said.

Dages said Johnson then balled his fists and took a fighting stance — which Johnson denied when he took the stand last week.

Johnson testified that he explained he was waiting for friends who lived at the apartment complex and didn’t know why he was not allowed to leave even after his friends arrived.

One of Johnson’s friends and two other witnesses recorded parts of the encounter. Johnson later posted video to social media — which drew widespread attention. Police later released footage from officers’ body-worn cameras. Dages, however, did not turn on his body-worn camera until the incident turned physical. The footage does not capture the start of the encounter.

Dages testified that a sergeant reviewed his body camera video with him and told him to write the report in a Word document — which Dages described as an unusual step. Dages said he was asked to make several rounds of revisions related to the “phrasing,” grammar and organization of the information in the report.

Sgt. Travis Higgins testified that he did not tell Dages what to write in the report. What he wanted was Dages to explain why he detained Johnson and used force, Higgins said.


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