Mesa, Arizona, police cleared in beating and fatal shooting. Still, feds reviewing department's use of force

The FBI is looking into four use-of-force incidents by Mesa, Arizona, police, including the May beating of a...

Posted: Sep 3, 2018 10:49 AM
Updated: Sep 3, 2018 10:49 AM

The FBI is looking into four use-of-force incidents by Mesa, Arizona, police, including the May beating of a 33-year-old man that a neighboring police department investigated and deemed "legally authorized," Mesa police said Thursday.

The incidents will be reviewed for potential civil rights violations, according to a police statement that provided only the basic details of each case. It directed all questions to the FBI, which declined to comment on specifics but said reviews and assessments do not always result in investigations being opened.

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"When appropriate, the facts of an incident will be forwarded for judicial consideration," the bureau said in a statement. "Prosecutors decide whether or not to pursue criminal charges. As in any case, if criminal charges are filed, they will become a matter of public record."

The latest incident involves the arrest of Robert Johnson, whose friend was trying to get into the apartment of an ex-girlfriend when she called 911. Mesa officers arrived and told Johnson to sit in the hallway, an order Johnson refused to heed, police said at the time.

Footage from the May 23 scene shows four officers approach Johnson, who is leaning against the wall, cell phone in hand. An elevator carrying two more officers opens as one of the policemen grabs Johnson by the back of the neck and knees him twice in the midsection.

A second officer hits Johnson in the ribs, then two more times in the face as the officer who had Johnson's neck throws at least five punches to his head, the video shows. As the second officer pulls Johnson's leg out from under him, the officer striking his head hits him in the face with his forearm and Johnson slides down the wall.

Video shows Mesa officers punching, mocking suspect

Police Chief Ramon Batista said later he was "disappointed" by the video. He placed a sergeant and three officers on administrative leave and said he would issue a special directive forbidding his officers from hitting someone in the head "unless they are showing us active aggression."

He further said the officers felt the force was warranted because Johnson declined to sit down.

"The things that he said and then leaning against the wall made the officers feel as though they needed to have him sit down," the chief said.

One of the arresting officers wrote in an incident report that Johnson was confrontational and they asked him to sit down so he'd pose less of a threat.

"Johnson's body language was projecting he was preparing for a physical altercation," the officer wrote.

Johnson was charged with disorderly conduct and hindering prosecution, but the charges were dropped the following month, CNN affiliate KNXV reported.

Attorney Benjamin Taylor has denied that his client was resisting officers and called the use of force "unconscionable."

On Monday, the Scottsdale Police Department, which was tapped to investigate the Mesa officers' conduct, said it reviewed eight bodycams and surveillance video from the apartment complex and decided "no criminal charges are warranted against the involved officers as the use of force was legally authorized and justified under Arizona State Law." Scottsdale and Mesa are both in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Taylor threatened to seek justice via the civil courts Monday. On Thursday, he applauded news of the FBI assessment.

"While it is regrettable the officers involved were not charged with any crimes locally, we remain hopeful the federal government will ultimately deliver justice and foster much-needed reforms at the Mesa Police Department," he said.

The other three incidents under federal review:

Teen robbery suspect

Though the 15-year-old was arrested the week before the Johnson incident, it didn't come to light until June. Responding to an armed robbery call, Mesa officers arrived to find a young man at the scene with another teen, both of whom were told to lie down on the ground. They complied, according to a police report.

The 15-year-old begins cursing at the officers, and one of the officers curses back, ordering that he remain on the ground, footage from the scene shows.

After cuffing the 15-year-old's hands behind his back, officers took him to a squad car, and one officer held him by what a police report described as a pressure point behind his ear. The officer felt it was necessary to keep him from moving around, according to the report.

The teenager screams in apparent pain, continually denying he has a gun, the video shows. Officers later lift his handcuffed wrists toward his head; he again reacts as if he's in pain.

The teen was later charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after police found a modified rifle in a backpack on a nearby porch, police said.

Two officers were placed on leave in the incident. Chief Batista said he was "deeply disappointed" by footage from both Johnson's and the teen's arrests and said he had asked the Maricopa County attorney to investigate the latter.

"It's essential that when this community interacts with our officers, they are treated with the utmost professionalism, no matter the situation," he said. "Quite honestly, that's not what I saw in those videos, and that will change."

The county attorney's office declined to press charges earlier this month, KNXV reported.

Scott Farnsworth

In September 2017, Mesa police responded to reports of a shooting outside a convenience store and found Farnsworth, 28, of Valley acting erratically and waving a gun, according to police reports cited by KNXV.

Officers told the man to drop the gun, but Farnsworth raised his weapon toward officers, the station reported. Three officers opened fire, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

His mother later told KNXV that he was an Army veteran who served in Iraq and retired because of severe PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.

"He's so compassionate, so kind, and he's been that way since he was a little boy," Pat Farnsworth told the station.

Daniel Shaver

In January 2016, Mesa officer Philip "Mitch" Brailsford confronted Shaver at a La Quinta Inns & Suites, and police ordered Shaver and a woman to exit a room on the fifth floor.

Bodycam footage shows Shaver on his knees in the hallway. Ordered to put his hands in the air, Shaver puts them on the floor, then behind his back, then moves them forward as an officer repeats the command.

"You do that again, we're shooting you. Do you understand?" an officer says.

"Please do not shoot me," Shaver says.

"Then listen to my instructions," the officer says.

"I'm trying to just do what you say," Shaver says.

"Do not put your hands down for any reason!" the officer later says to Shaver. "You think you're going to fall, you better fall on your face. Your hands go back in the small of your back or down, we are going to shoot you! Do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir," Shaver says, sobbing.

An officer then orders Shaver to crawl toward him. As Shaver crawls, he appears to reach behind him with his right hand. Brailsford fires five rounds, killing him.

Op-ed: Shaver shooting was avoidable

An autopsy revealed Shaver's blood alcohol level was .29 at the time, more than four times the limit to legally drive in Arizona, CNN affiliate KTRK/KPHO reported.

Brailsford was charged with second-degree murder and reckless manslaughter, and he was fired based on the murder charge and for having the words "you're f***ed" engraved on his department-approved AR-15, Mesa police spokeswoman Sgt. Diana Williams said at the time.

Though an attorney for Shaver's widow classified the shooting as "an execution, pure and simple." A jury acquitted Brailsford, who testified during his trial that he thought Shaver was reaching for a gun.

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