“The city is in outrage,” Councilwoman Sheneika Smith said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Facebook was flaming. It was on fire.”
The beginning of the video, which was taken last year and was first obtained by The Citizen Times, shows Johnnie Jermaine Rush being approached by Verino Ruggiero, an officer in training, shortly after midnight on Aug. 25 at a street corner near a baseball stadium in Asheville, about 120 miles west of Charlotte.
“You didn’t use the crosswalk four times in a row,” Ruggiero says in the video.
“All I’m trying to do is go home, man. I’m tired!” Rush says. “I just got off of work.”
“I’ve got two options, I can either arrest you or write you a ticket,” Ruggiero says.
“It doesn’t matter, man. Do what you got to do besides keep harassing me, man,” Rush responds.
The episode quickly escalates from there. Officer Chris Hickman, who was training Ruggiero and wearing the body camera, orders Rush to put his hands behind his back. Rush runs, and the officers chase him, eventually tackling him to the ground.
During the arrest, Rush was shocked with a Taser, choked and beaten by Hickman, according to police records.
At several points, while pinned to the ground, Rush cried, “I can’t breathe!”
The camera footage also shows Hickman hitting Rush on the head over and over with a closed fist, and Rush crying out in pain as he is shocked with a Taser.
Rush could not be reached for comment.
When Smith first saw the video, she said she was “immediately disturbed.”
She recognized Rush, she said, from her work last year with the nonprofit Green Opportunities, a workforce development organization that provides training programs to people in marginalized communities.
She described him as a hardworking man who was eager to learn and who had expressed an interest in construction and carpentry. “He was looking for opportunities to gain more skills so he could qualify for higher-paying jobs,” she said.
On the day Rush was approached by the officers, he was walking home after the end of his dishwashing shift at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, according to the arrest report.
Police records show he was charged with second-degree trespass, impeding traffic, assault on a government official and resisting a public officer. In September, all the charges were dismissed after Todd M. Williams, the district attorney in Asheville, reviewed the body camera video, police records show.
Williams did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Late Wednesday, at a local police advisory meeting packed with community members, Police Chief Tammy Hooper reportedly said she was “happy to resign” if that would quell the public discontent.
In a statement last week, Hooper apologized for the episode, calling the actions in the video “unacceptable.”
Hooper directed all questions to an Asheville Police Department spokeswoman, who declined to respond, referring instead to the documents and statements already posted online.
“The whole thing is bad, right?” Hooper said in a long-ranging interview with the television station WLOS that was posted Monday. “It’s just a terrible, egregious case. The whole reason around the stop to begin with was just a bad thing from start to finish.”
She also told WLOS that the Police Department was rethinking its protocol for excessive force cases.
The two administrative investigations of Hickman, which concluded in December, took several months. It was not until January that the criminal investigation began, the results of which are expected to be given to the district attorney next week. Ruggiero is not under investigation.
The administrative investigations revealed Hickman had used excessive force during the arrest and he had engaged in “rude and discourteous behavior” on four other occasions with other members of the public, according to police records. Hooper decided to terminate him in January, personnel records show, but before she could deliver the news, he notified the department of his resignation, the documents say.
On Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that the FBI had opened a criminal investigation into the actions of Hickman.
Hickman could not be reached for comment.
A supervisor who responded to the scene on the night of Rush’s arrest was disciplined for unsatisfactory performance after failing to immediately disclose all the details gleaned from interviewing Hickman and Rush, and neglecting to view the body camera footage that day.
Rush told The Citizen Times that the supervisor accused him multiple times of lying.
“She kind of yelled a little bit, saying: ‘You’re lying. You’re lying. My officer is not going to do that,'” he said.
The city of Asheville has filed a petition requesting that the Police Department release additional body camera footage from the night of Rush’s arrest to provide the public with a “complete picture of the incident.”
Asheville, a city of nearly 90,000 in the Appalachian Mountains, is deeply segregated, Smith said. Only about 12 percent of the population is black.
Last year, Hooper faced protests after requesting $1 million to hire more officers to police the downtown area, which is near where Rush was tackled.
“Asheville has an issue where we place value on certain people and we devalue other people based on their race, their politics, their economic situation or their placement within Asheville,” Smith said.
In a statement, the mayor of Asheville, Esther E. Manheimer, called the video “highly disturbing.”
“We are better than this. We MUST uphold ourselves to the highest standards and practices,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
CHRISTINA CARON © 2018 The New York Times