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Mesa police chief details departmental changes after high-profile force incidents

Posted at 1:48 PM, Feb 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-23 17:42:51-05

MESA, AZ — A series of investigations launched by the Mesa Police Department following several high-profile incidents that called officers' use of force into question last summer are nearly complete, Chief Ramon Batista announced Friday.

The department launched three investigations and hired an outside firm, the Police Executive Research Forum, after two incidents in May gained national attention.

In the first, apartment surveillance video shows officers beating a man, Robert Johnson, while responding to a domestic disturbance. Johnson was not involved in the reason police were called, though officers say he was preparing to fight based on his body language and "verbally defiant." He was repeatedly punched him against a wall and dragged him to the ground.

A review by the Scottsdale Police Department and Maricopa County Attorney's Office found the actions of the officers did not warrant criminal prosecution. The city attorney later dropped the charges filed against Johnson.

RELATED: Man files claim against Mesa police after officer shove leads to broken ankle

That decision led religious leaders to demand several changes within the department, including improving de-escalation and inherent bias training, receiving assistance from the Department of Justice and hiring a full-time community liaison.

The second incident involved police officers confronting a teenage robbery suspect. Body camera video shows an officer grab the teen by the jaw after he was already in custody.

The review by the Police Executive Research Forum is not yet complete, but all internal investigations are, Batista said. The officers involved in the two incidents will be disciplined, but not terminated. Due to the officers' ability to appeal their punishment, Batista said he could not disclose specifics.

In a statement, the chief emphasized changes that the department has already enacted, including updating training, the department's use of force protocols, and reworked the internal process for all use of force cases.

"Our updated training emphasizes critical decision making, de-escalation and non-lethal force options," Batista said. "Our Use of Force policy now prohibits strikes to the head, neck and face if someone is resisting arrest or detention and/or not complying with officers’ orders. Strikes to the head, neck, and face are only permissible if an officer or someone else is faced with active aggression, which may result in physical harm."

"We are committed to continuing our pursuit for the highest standards and promoting our mission of partnering with our community to prevent and reduce crime and to ensure procedural justice by building trust, showing respect, and preserving human rights," Batista said.