Corporal James Johnson testified he did not choke a Wilmington teen in an April 2014 arrest, but applied two different pressure point techniques on the teen after he became combative in the back of Johnson’s patrol vehicle.
Johnson, a 25-year veteran with Wilmington Police Department, took the stand Monday morning during his bench trial in New Hanover County Superior Court. Johnson has been on unpaid leave from the force since his indictment and arrest in the use of force case in June 2014. He has been charged with two misdemeanors, including simple assault and failure to discharge duties in the arrest of 18-year-old Tyrell Rivers. The state contends Johnson tried to choke the teen on two occasions in the patrol car.
In his testimony, Johnson recalled he responded to the Jervay public housing community around midnight on April 4, 2014. Johnson was on the midnight shift working 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and had another officer with him in training. He was on standby in reference to a suspicious persons call, while an officer pursued three suspects through the public housing community.
Johnson said Rivers, then 16, was walking several feet in front of the two other suspects. He came into contact with Rivers and attempted to utilize a taser on the teen, when he saw Rivers reach for the waistband of his pants and feared there may be a threat. The taser did not reach Rivers, and the officer in training joined Johnson as they ran after Rivers.
Johnson testified Rivers did not try to scale the fence when met by officers, as the teen had previously told the court during state’s evidence. Johnson said, “He just gave up and laid down on the grass…pretty much like he ran out of gas and couldn’t run anymore.”
When Johnson’s trainee caught up with Rivers, Johnson shortly followed, he testified. Johnson testified Rivers was “very irate” and “belligerent,” adding that the teen immediately began calling him “cracker.”
“He was one of the most racist individuals I’ve met in my 25-year career,” Johnson said of Rivers. Rivers was then taken back to Johnson’s patrol vehicle and searched. Police found a bindle of heroin and a “cigar” of marijuana in Rivers’ pants pocket before officers placed him in the back passenger side of the vehicle.
“He immediately turned around and began to kick the back door of the car…viciously, violently. I thought he may do property damage or kick out the window of the door,” Johnson said.
Johnson testified at that point he used a pressure point technique to subdue Rivers. First, Johnson said he did a “mild jab” to Rivers’ back with a police baton to get his attention and then performed the pressure point technique on Rivers’ neck to gain compliance.
“The pain compliance technique would be one of the lower levels of force I could use…it causes no permanent injury. It causes pain and when you take your hand off it, it’s done,” Johnson said of the technique, adding that it lasted three to four seconds once he was able to find the particular pressure point he was looking for on Rivers’ neck.
Officers then pulled Rivers from the patrol car so they could restrain his legs. While outside the patrol vehicle Johnson testified it took he and two other officers to restrain Rivers to get the standardized straps routinely used by law enforcement around the teen’s legs. Johnson also testified the teen continued to kick while they were trying to restrain him.
Johnson said when he and another officer then placed the teen back into the vehicle, Rivers was trying to kick with both legs. The officer testified he got into the vehicle and applied another pressure point technique on Rivers. Johnson said he did it to protect the safety of the teen and was the best use of force under the circumstances to get the teen to turn onto his side instead of lying on his stomach.
“At no point did I intend to choke Mr. Rivers. And I did not choke Mr. Rivers,” Johnson said. “In fact, I think I enhanced his safety by keeping him from harming himself by kicking the window and keep him from possible asphyxia.”
During cross examination, Assistant District Attorney Barrett Temple asked Johnson about the language he used during Rivers’ arrest. Johnson is heard on an in-car video recording saying, “Do you want to die in the back of my car? Stop.”
Temple asked why Johnson made that statement and applied the pressure point technique to Rivers when there was no threat that the teen would kick an open car door. Johnson said he was trying to “shock” the teen to stop him from kicking and to get the teen in place so he wouldn’t asphyxiate.
Temple also asked if application of the pressure point technique to Rivers’ neck could be considered as using “deadly force.”
“If you were not using the technique properly and if you were squishing the windpipe or something like that, yes,” Johnson replied.
The defense has rested their case. Due to scheduling issues, closing arguments are scheduled to begin Friday in New Hanover County Superior Court.