SAN DIEGO (AP) — A former San Diego-area police officer who pushed a Black man during an arrest last year was acquitted Friday of lying on his report about the incident, which was captured on video and sparked widespread looting and arson amid nationwide racial unrest.
A jury deliberated over three days before finding former La Mesa police Officer Matthew Dages not guilty on one count of providing false testimony. Dages, 30, dropped his head to his chest in relief after the verdict was read.
Defense attorney Jeremiah J. Sullivan III criticized San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan for prosecuting the case.
“The progressive DA is choosing criminals over cops,” he said in a text to The Associated Press.
Stephan released a statement saying she was “proud that my team courageously fought for justice without prejudice against or favor towards anyone.”
“The integrity of our criminal justice system depends on police officers filing truthful police reports, and our thorough review of the facts and evidence led us to bring the charge and present the case to the jury,” she said.
Dages testified he was truthful when he wrote in his report that Amaurie Johnson, 24, balled his fists and took a fighting stance when he stopped him for smoking on a trolley platform on May 27, 2020. He also said Johnson hit his arm.
Video taken by a witness and posted to social media showed the white police officer grabbing and pushing Johnson onto a concrete bench. Johnson was taken into custody on accusations of resisting arrest but was not charged with a crime and was not cited for smoking.
The incident fueled racial tensions in the normally sedate suburb as protesters claimed Johnson was singled out for being Black. It happened two days after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis unleashed nationwide protests over police brutality.
The witness’s videoshows Johnson telling the officer to “shut the (expletive) up.” At one point, the man says he is being arrested because he’s Black. “That’s what the issue is,” he said.
Body camera footage shows the back-and-forth continued on the drive to the police station.
The officer says, “Did I feel threatened when you put your hands on me? No, because I’m not scared of you, but I’m not going to let you put your hands on me.” Johnson denied the allegation and says he was trying to get the officer’s hands off him.
Johnson testified at the officer’s trial that he was not smoking. He acknowledged he swatted the officer’s hand but said he did not ball his fists or take a fighting stance.
Dages, who served two years on the La Mesa police force, was fired after the incident. He faced up to three years in prison if he had been convicted.
The tensions over Johnson’s treatment exploded into violent protests in La Mesa on May 30, 2020. Two banks were burned to the ground, a fire truck set ablaze and other businesses looted in the city of about 60,000 that is east of San Diego.
Authorities fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Demonstrator Leslie Furcron, 59, was shot between the eyes with a bean-bag round and hospitalized.
The county called in the California National Guard, which arrived five days later to prevent additional violence.
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.