A surveillance video shows a Murrieta police officer approaching a young man at the register of a CVS Pharmacy and trying to talk to him. Within seconds, the two begin to push and pull each other until the man runs toward the door.
The officer catches up to the 22-year-old and wraps his arm around the man’s neck. Still uncooperative, the man breaks free and runs outside, where, cellphone video posted on a witness’ Facebook page shows, an officer repeatedly beats him with a baton while he thrashes, held down on the ground.
Murrieta police said Alejandro Rojo began fighting with the officer inside the store and grabbed at his holstered gun. The struggle inside was a battle over possession of the firearm, authorities said.
The incident began around 8:45 p.m. Tuesday, when police received reports of a man “creating a disturbance and possibly under the influence of drugs.” Rojo had been inside the store tearing open packages of medical supplies and possibly ingesting them prior to the officer’s arrival, police said.
Authorities said Rojo tried to disarm the officer again outside, after he fled the store. That’s when additional officers arrived and “attempted multiple force techniques in an attempt to stop the suspect from attempting to disarm the officer.”
The officer who chased Rojo broke his hand as a result of the fight and Rojo was arrested with several bruises and cuts, police said.
After being treated at a medical facility, Rojo was booked on suspicion of attempting to disarm a police officer, resisting a police officer causing injury, obstructing a police officer causing injury, battery on a police officer with injury and retail property trespassing. He was to be booked on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs pending lab results, police said.
Rojo’s booking photo shows him with a black left eye and bruises around his face. He was released Wednesday on $20,000 bail.
Rojo’s family is “very concerned” about the arrest, said attorney Brett Parkinson, who has been retained by the family.
“They have a lot of unanswered questions we’re going to try to get answered,” he said Friday. “We’re in the process of reviewing everything and conducting our own investigation. ... If we think there’s a violation of Alex’s rights, we will file a suit.”
Police said the incident is being reviewed by investigators and the use of force is being looked into “as a matter of policy.”
Use-of-force experts who reviewed the video said Friday that Rojo’s resistance made the use of physical force necessary and reasonable. However, one veteran policing expert said the actions of the officer who repeatedly struck Rojo with a baton as he lay on the ground, and after he had been zapped with a Taser, required scrutiny.
Charles “Sid” Heal, a former sheriff’s commander, said, “It is ugly, but if the guy is going for an officer’s gun and showing repeated resistance, he is lucky not to get shot here.”
He said the suspect was clearly not complying with the officer and could be seen actively fighting the officer inside the store.
“It is rapidly escalating. I could not see if the suspect grabbed the gun. But I could see the officer check to see if his weapon was still in the holster,” Heal said.
Heal said he suspected that chemical tests on Rojo will show he was under the influence of a powerful stimulant given the blows from the telescoping baton that he sustained. “He is getting struck … and it does not seem to produce any compliance. That hurts, and he isn’t feeling that pain,” Heal said.
Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force expert and Plumas County sheriff’s deputy, said, “There is close to a 25-second struggle inside this store. At 30 seconds, you are close to getting gassed. This officer knows this guy is under the influence and strong.”
Obayashi said the officer would tell his arriving colleagues the man tried to grab his gun, heightening the force.
Obayashi said a second and third officer joined the struggle as it moved outside the CVS Pharmacy.
“The third officer arrives and starts hitting the suspect with his baton,” Obayashi said. “That third officer then applies a Taser and places it on the subject’s back ... and then drops the Taser and goes back to his baton. … The question is why did he drop the Taser and go back to the baton. That is what looks bad on the video,” Obayashi said.
Greg Meyer, a former LAPD training division captain, said the video doesn’t tell the whole story.
“This is yet another case that shows several of the limitations of video evidence,” he said. “One of the questions, in this case, has to do with the subject grabbing for the officer’s handgun, but the view of the subject’s hands is often blocked by objects in the store.”
Meyer said that in the video outside the store, officers can be heard giving Rojo repeated commands, which he ignores. “The subject’s resistance is very strenuous and appears typical of someone under the influence of stimulant drugs. The subject is able to physically resist the officers’ attempts to get him turned over onto his stomach and to control his arms. Impact techniques are used, and still the subject resists,” Meyer said.
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2:05 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from use-of-force exports.
10:15 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from the family attorney.
This article was originally published at 8:15 a.m.