La Mesa city officials held their first press conference Wednesday to address the controversial arrest of a black man by a white officer that occurred one week ago. And, while the mayor promised more accountability for the police department, activists in attendance demanded more action.
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, who was killed begging for air under the knee of a police officer.
Both incidents prompted protesters to gather outside the La Mesa Police Department headquarters on Saturday to demand action against the police officer in the video, who was placed on administrative leave while an independent review of the incident was being conducted.
On Wednesday, the La Mesa Police Department held its first press conference to address the incident and released eight videos of body-worn camera footage showing the perspective of four police officers that day. The body-worn video, just like the user-captured video posted to Instagram, did not show what occurred in the moments before Johnson and the arresting officer started arguing.
The La Mesa Police Department said Johnson was initially stopped by officers at the Grossmont Trolley Station for allegedly smoking in public at the platform area.
After several minutes of back and forth, he was arrested on charges of assault on an officer and resisting/delaying/obstructing an officer. He was issued a citation and released, LMPD Chief Walt Vasquez said. No charges for smoking were filed.
Johnson -- who attended Wednesday's press conference and took the podium with other activists once the officials from the city finished speaking -- said the officers found no evidence that he was smoking or in possession of marijuana.
“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."
Activist Genevieve Jones-Wright called for the charges against Johnson to be dropped.
“They contacted him because he is a black man standing somewhere they didn’t want him to stand, and you need to understand what it means to be black in this city and in this county,” she said.
She also demanded the arresting officer be charged. LMPD has not named any of the officers involved.
La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis said a third party is conducting an independent review and appropriate action would be taken on the reviewer's recommendation.
"That’s why we are promising to provide the citizens with the full accounting of the incident and an independent review by experts to identify any shortcomings in our management of the incident and to ensure we never again put our city and citizens in the position of vulnerability and unrest,” he said.
Johnson's arrest was first seen by the public on social media, in a video captured by a user named @lemthurdy with a caption that read, in part, “Police brutality in San Diego.” In less than 24 hours, the clip had amassed nearly 615,000 views.
A week later, the La Mesa Police Department released the body-worn camera footage of the four officers at the scene of the arrest in eight different clips.
None of the videos show Johnson's initial stop. All begin at some portion during the confrontation with the arresting officer. While NBC 7 cannot verify what happened before or after cameras starting rolling, here's what is seen:
In the Instagram video, Johnson is arguing with a La Mesa Police Department officer. He tells the officer he was waiting for someone. The officer pushes Johnson onto a bench. More officers arrive.
Johnson is sitting on the bench, and the officer steps back and stands behind him.
About four-and-a-half minutes into the video, Johnson can be heard saying, “I already know what it is. I’m black as f*** out here. That’s what the issue is; it’s all good, I get it.”
Several clips released by the La Mesa Police Department show the same scene but from different vantage points.
In one of the videos released, Johnson’s friend approaches officers to explain that Johnson was waiting for him to come back from the grocery store.
"(Johnson) is coming to my house,” he can be heard telling police officers on the bodycam video. “As we pull up, (a police officer) is already questioning him like he is in the wrong like he is not supposed to be here.”
The video from the arresting officer's bodycam is 11 minutes long and starts when Johnson is already seated at the bench.
In another video, a police officer can be heard speaking with a woman who said she did not know Johnson.
"I was watching the whole thing," the woman said. "He was just waiting on his friends, and then the guy, the police officer approached him and --" "You're not, you're not with him?" the officer asked. "No." she answered.
The LMPD videos also show Johnson being detained. But once Johnson is placed into the back of a police car, the video is muted. Meanwhile, the four officers can be seen talking.
Another clip has audio of a back-and-forth between the arresting officer and Johnson as he in the back of the police car.
Charges were filed against Johnson and he was released from custody, LMPD said.
Mayor Arapostathis acknowledged that the release of the Instagram video "inflamed tensions at a local level," that led hundreds of demonstrators to the steps of the La Mesa Police Department on Saturday for a day of mostly peaceful protest.
The protest, part of the nationwide demonstrations over the weekend, followed the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis as well as Johnson's arrest.
A crowd first formed across the street from the station with about 20 to 30 people holding signs. about 45 minutes later, the group split in two and marched down the sidewalks of city streets. Hundreds eventually joined the movement.
Later in the day, the protesters were blocked on Baltimore Drive by the California Highway Patrol as they tried to make their way onto Interstate 8. Crowds broke through multiple lines and walked on both sides of I-8 as police and CHP diverted traffic.
But unrest took over as day turned to night and some people became violent as tensions between officers and demonstrators escalated back at LMPD headquarters, leading LMPD to declare an unlawful assembly. The department said anyone who remained could be arrested.
At one point, some people began throwing rocks and bottles in tactical gear surrounded the police headquarters and deployed tear gas, flashbangs and "less lethal" projectiles.
One woman was struck in the head with a bean bag round, another incident that activists are demanding the department address.
Mayor Arapostathis said the city was not prepared for what came next. As the evening progressed, looting and violence began. The mayor called other local police departments for backup and attempted to call the National Guard, but the guard was occupied with similar rioting in Los Angeles.
La Mesa City Hall was briefly on fire but the flames were quickly put out and no one appeared to be injured. Multiple vehicles, including a Heartland Fire & Rescue vehicle, were also set on fire.
Looters broke into the Vons at the La Mesa Springs Shopping Center, Walmart at the Grossmont Center and more. Windows were smashed at many businesses, including a Goodwill store, a Sotheby’s real estate office and a popular bar.
Just before midnight, the Chase Bank and the Union Bank on Spring Street were broken into and set on fire.
The banks were still smoldering the next day. Broken glass, water bottles, trash and debris littered the streets. But hundreds of La Mesa residents arrived with brooms and paint to clean up their city.
"La Mesa became ground zero for the regions outpouring and demands for change in law enforcement practices,” Mayor Arapostathis said Wednesday. "We stand here today totally committed to never let this happen again in our beautiful city."
Family members on Wednesday also demanded answers from the La Mesa Police Department about an incident during Saturday's protests that left their 59-year-old mother in a medically-induced coma.
Leslie Furcron was among demonstrators outside the La Mesa Police Department on Saturday when unrest began between the group of protesters and the line of armored police officers surrounding the building.
According to LMPD, some people in the crowd began throwing water bottles and other objects at officers, prompting them to respond with tear gas and "less lethal" projectiles, causing one -- a bean bag round -- to hit Leslie Furcron in the forehead.
In graphic video shared with NBC 7, Leslie Furcron lay unconscious on the ground as members of the crowd came to her aid.
NBC 7 Investigates obtained La Mesa police training documents that show bean bag ammunition weigh 40 grams and travel at 200 to 300 feet per second. A shot placement diagram shows the upper torso and head as "potentially lethal" areas.
According to demonstrators, it wasn't until Furcron was shot that members of the crowd became unruly.
"The carnage that we witnessed in La Mesa occurred after, after an elderly woman, 59 years old, was almost killed,” the family's attorney Dante Pride said as he criticized LMPD Chief Vasquez for deflecting questions from the crowd on Wednesday.
"Why didn’t you help, Leslie? Why didn’t you help her? She got shot and I begged for you guys to help her. I went up to 20 police officers and said, ‘Help Leslie. She’s bleeding. She’s on the ground.’ You guys didn’t listen at all. You refused to help her. Why didn’t you help her?" a crowd member shouted.
"I understand, again with the bean bag round, that incident is under review at this time to understand exactly what occurred,” Vasquez said.
Leslie Furcron's two sons, Azim Sanders and Ahmad Furcron, called for Chief Vasquez to release the name of the officer who fired the projectile and for any body camera footage of the incident to be released.
"My mom is 59 years old. She didn’t break no laws. She wasn't being violent or nothing," Ahmad Furcron said. "We want answers she was shot between the eyes."
It was not clear if LMPD knew the name of the officer involved or if the officer had been placed on administrative leave. The LMPD has not responded to questions on the matter from NBC 7.
The family's attorney shared some good news at the press conference Wednesday. Leslie Furcron was taken out of a medically-induced coma and her family expected her to be talking by the evening.