As the nation reeled from reports of George Floyd’s death while in custody of a police officer in Minneapolis, the arrest of Amaurie Johnson transformed La Mesa from a small suburban city to the local epicenter for racial disparities in policing.
Johnson, 23, was arrested by La Mesa Police officer Matt Dages, a three-year veteran on the force during an altercation outside of an apartment complex across the street from the La Mesa trolley stop.
Video of Amaurie Johnson's arrest was posted to Instagram last week and quickly went viral amid calls for police accountability following the death of George Floyd.
Now, new testimony from a witness at the scene as well as body camera footage from six La Mesa Police Officers, is shedding new light on the controversial arrest that sparked unrest in the east county city.
In the afternoon of May 27, Johnson said he was waiting for friends to pick him up from outside their apartment when Officer Dages approached him to question him why he was outside the apartments.
The officer ordered him to sit on a nearby bench. When Johnson tried to get up when his friends arrived, Officer Dages restrained Johnson and pushed him back onto the bench. Johnson tried to get up another time and Dages again pushed Johnson down. Dages later arrested Johnson for battery on a peace officer and resisting arrest.
On Wednesday, during a tense news conference, La Mesa elected officials released the body camera footage from the six police officers who arrived at the scene. During the videos, Johnson is heard expressing his frustration with the treatment, even suggesting that he was scared of getting shot in the back of the police car.
“I know what the problem is, I am black as f*#$,” said Johnson during the arrest and recorded on the officer’s body camera.
As Officer Dages led Johnson to his police cruiser, Johnson told the officer, “I hope you don’t kill me in the back of this car, though, that’s what I hope. I hope you don’t shoot me in the back of this car or some shit, that’s what I hope.”
And while the body camera footage shows Johnson visibly upset over his treatment and subsequent arrest, it is the video taken by a witness who saw the entire altercation unfold that led to public outcry over the arrest.
“I think that it was handled very poorly,” said the MTS worker who wished to remain anonymous.
The witness said she was feet away from Johnson when Officer Dages approached him.
“I think that words should have been spoken from a police officer instead of hands. I feel like he should have released him when he found out that he was telling the truth.”
The witness believed the situation would not have happened were Johnson not a black man.
“The police officer escalated that situation,” said the witness. “He wanted that situation to keep on going. I think the reason why he approached him is because he saw a black man in front of luxury apartments in La Mesa.”
The witness said she felt Dages should have let Johnson go immediately when his friends pulled up.
“As a mother of boys, I think that it was scary,” said the witness. “It was scary for him being harassed or detained or whatever you want to call it. It was scary for me. And I also let the police know that.”
Added the witness, “There needs to be more words. There needs to be more understanding. We're all individuals. We all just want to get home safe. I believe the officer needs to be placed on administrative leave. I don't feel like this is the business for him. I don't feel like this is, this is something that needs to do for a lifetime. He couldn't, he was not here for the citizens of La Mesa or the citizens of San Diego.”
Meanwhile, at a June 3 news conference, elected officials in La Mesa said they have launched an independent investigation to look at the arrest.
In regards to the reason Dages questioned Johnson, La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vazquez said Dages suspected Johnson was smoking in an area where it was not allowed, and that's what started their encounter. Vazquez said Dages is now on paid-leave pending the outcome of the investigation.
Johnson was at the news conference and spoke to the media afterwards.
“Pretty much what you see is what you get from the video that you see online," Johnson said. "I challenge anybody who does have any other video to release it and show anything that states otherwise."