A state’s expert witness in officer’s use of force testified Wednesday that Wilmington Police Corporal James Johnson’s actions were not reasonable during the April 2014 arrest of a Wilmington teenager.
Johnson is accused of choking a 16-year-old boy he arrested; his defense attorney says the motions were a pressure point technique to subdue a subject who had become violent. Superior Court Judge Ebern T. Watson is presiding over the trial, which began Tuesday.
John Combs, an officer with the Fayetteville Police Department and an instructor for the North Carolina Justice Academy, testified as an expert witness. He was interviewed by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and offered his opinion of the corporal’s actions in video footage taken from Johnson’s in-car camera that shows the arrest of Tyrell Rivers, then 16, on April 4, 2014.
On that day, Rivers was pursued as a suspect through the Jervay public housing community and was apprehended after a foot chase with Wilmington police. Officers brought Rivers to Johnson’s patrol vehicle for arrest. The video footage of the back seat in Johnson’s dashcam prompted investigations by both Wilmington Police Department internal affairs and the SBI.
Combs’ testimony came after the defense wrapped up questioning Rivers, as well as two other officers who played a role in the investigation into Johnson’s case.
Attorney Michael McGuinness, who represents Johnson in the case, focused his line of questioning in the earlier part of the trial Wednesday morning on Rivers’ actions after the alleged assault. He asked Rivers why he didn’t report any physical injury during his health exam at the jail or that he was allegedly choked. Again, Rivers told the court he didn’t think law enforcement would care.
The witness testified he wasn’t doing anything wrong when he was arrested. But McGuinness questioned why he ran from police and argued that Rivers had drugs on him and was a gang member at the time.
“Just because I’m a gang member doesn’t mean they should be doing anything they want,” Rivers said. “You think if people are a gang member, police can just mess with them…that’s not right.”
Raymond Reeves testified one of his roles as an SBI case agent in the investigation into Johnson’s use of force case was to conduct interviews with several witnesses in the case, including Rivers and Johnson.
Rivers was not initially forthcoming with information and was “spotty” on some of the details in his 55-minute interview with the SBI agent. But Reeves testified the teen said he was choked by Johnson. Reeves also told the court Rivers said he ran from police and admitted he may not have been able to remember all the details because he was smoking pot the night of the incident.
McGuinness questioned the reliability of the teen’s testimony given the his recollection of the case coming only when questioned by the agent months after the incident, coupled with his testimony that he took Xanax pills and did not smoke pot.
In his interview with Corporal Johnson, Reeves said the officer stated he was using two types of pressure point techniques to subdue Rivers, which he learned through his basic law enforcement and in-service training. Johnson also told the SBI agent that he never felt threatened by Rivers and was never assaulted by him. The officer stated the teen was kicking his patrol car door, even as the officer was removing him from the vehicle to put straps on his legs.
Reeves also testified he interviewed Combs. The two went through the the video footage in the case, but did not go over many other specifics about the case. It was the lack of evidence given to Combs when he offered his opinion, as well as the fact that Combs had not been responsible for Johnson’s training, that sparked several objections from McGuinness about the witness’ testimony to the court.
The judge ultimately allowed the expert witness to testify on the grounds of his opinion as a law enforcement officer only. Judge Watson ordered that Combs exclude any testimony of what is the teaching standard of techniques in the state, despite several arguments from Assistant District Attorney Barrett Temple.
The day ended with testimony from Combs, who offered his opinions of Officer Johnson’s actions as Temple played the video for the court. He testified that Johnson’s verbal usage and use of physical force on Rivers was not reasonable given the circumstances of the arrest.
The video showed Johnson using his hands to subdue Rivers in the area of his neck on two occasions while the teen was in the back seat of the patrol vehicle. In the first instance, Temple questioned if it appeared to Combs that Johnson was using a pressure point technique.
“It did not appear to be…based on the position of the hands,” Combs said. “It looks like the defendant’s hand…and fingers are wrapping around the victim’s neck.”
Combs said Johnson’s hands were more in the form of a grab technique and did not have the tips of his fingers in position for what he would see as a normal pressure point technique.
“It was a clamp choke. Something like a grip…or squeeze for control,” Combs said, adding that the control would cut off circulation to the head or breathing, something that is used in aggressive situations but is not normally used for the fact that there is a “higher probability for serious injury.”
It was his opinion that the suspect was not a threat to officers since he had been cuffed and placed into the back of the vehicle away from officers.
Before the second use of alleged force was played on the video, it captured Rivers being been taken out of the vehicle. Officers placed straps on Rivers’ legs outside the patrol car to prevent him from kicking. When he was placed back into the vehicle, Temple stopped the video to show the second instance the state alleges force was used on Rivers.
Johnson’s hand went across the top of Rivers right shoulder with Rivers face down, Combs testified as Temple played the video slowly for the witness. Combs said it appeared to him Johnson’s hands were going around the back of Rivers’ neck toward the bottom of his jaw bone.
While certain techniques can be applied from behind a suspect, Combs testified it did not “appear to be a proper application” of the technique given the circumstances. Combs also testified that Johnson’s fingers were not visible in the angle of that part of the video.
Combs also said some statements made by Officer Johnson in the video were not “proper verbal commands or instruction.”
Johnson can be heard saying on the audio, “You don’t kick my god [expletive] door you little [expletive].” He also said, “Do you want to die in my back seat tonight? Stop.”
Combs testified those words would have worked toward “escalation of the situation” and offered no instruction to Rivers while Johnson was using force.
Combs’ testimony will resume with defense questioning Thursday morning in New Hanover County Superior Court.