An Asheville, North Carolina, news outlet published disturbing bodycam footage this week showing a white police officer beating a black resident, prompting public apologies from city officials who are continuing to investigate the incident.
The graphic video shows officers chasing Johnnie Rush, 33, throwing him to the ground, shocking him with a stun gun and beating him as he cries out in pain and shouts for help. Photos that Rush provided to the Asheville Citizen-Times show his bandaged and swollen head and other injuries.
Officer Chris Hickman and officer-in-training Verino Ruggiero, who are white, stopped Rush in a parking lot he was passing through in late August 2017 on his way home from a dishwashing shift at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. The officers claimed Rush was trespassing and jaywalking because the parking lot was attached to a business that was closed for the night.
“All I’m trying to do is go home, man. I’m tired. I just got off of work,” Rush is heard saying to Ruggiero in the footage, recorded by Hickman’s body camera. (Watch the video at the Citizen-Times.)
“I’ve got two options: I can either arrest you or write you a ticket,” Ruggiero responds.
“It doesn’t matter, man. Do what you have got to do, besides keep harassing me, man,” Rush says.
“That’s all in your mind,” Hickman is heard saying.
When Rush curses, Hickman order him to put his hands behind his back. Rush then attempts to run from the officers.
As he chases Rush with a stun gun, Hickman says, “You know what’s funny is you’re going to get fucked up hardcore.”
Hickman then pushes Rush to the ground and repeatedly punches his head. At least two other officers can be seen in the video.
“I can’t breathe,” Rush says multiple times.
Rush told the Citizen-Times he was later taken to a hospital, where he said Hickman used a racial slur and was abusive.
Rush was arrested and charged with assaulting a government official, resisting arrest, trespassing and traffic offenses. Those charges were dropped soon after, and the district attorney’s office began investigating, according to the Asheville Police Department.
Yet Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams told local ABC affiliate WLOS that he was initially shown the video to determine whether Rush had committed a crime — not to determine whether the officers had used excessive force. Asheville police said Williams was shown the video again in December. In January, the district attorney recommended a criminal investigation into Hickman’s behavior.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and Police Chief Tammy Hooper both apologized to Rush in separate statements on Thursday and promised a transparent investigation.
“The acts demonstrated in this video are unacceptable and contrary to the Department’s vision and the progress we have made in the last several years in improving community trust,” Hooper said. “Officers know that they must earn the trust of our community by providing fair and respectful service. That very clearly did not happen during the incident depicted and for that I apologize to Mr. Rush, as well as the community.”
Manheimer said city council members first learned about the incident through local media coverage this week.
“As your mayor, I want there to be a clear message that there must be an end to police abuse of power,” she said. “We are better than this. We MUST uphold ourselves to the highest standards and practices.”
Hickman left the department Jan. 5. The Asheville Police Department did not immediately respond on Friday to HuffPost’s request for information about Ruggiero’s employment status, but Hooper told the Citizen-Times that he was not under investigation.
Joined by Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, Manheimer and Hooper met behind closed doors with the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the Baptist Ministers Union on Thursday to discuss the incident. The city released a statement to say the pastors expressed concern during the meeting over the incident’s effect on the relationship between the city’s black residents and its police force.
“The City is committed to working with the community to further improvements in relations and the practices of the police department,” the statement read. “The City representatives further stated that the Council will conduct an immediate review into the circumstances of this incident, the release of information, and the status of the investigation.”