In another instance of violence that left Black Lives Matter activists crying out against racism in policing, a white officer in the city of Asheville, North Carolina, punched, choked, and used a stun gun on an unarmed black man he was pursuing for allegedly jaywalking.
That incident last August immediately outraged the community, but in February, when footage of the incident was leaked to the Asheville Citizen-Times, the outcry grew. In March, the officer, Christopher Hickman, was charged with felony and misdemeanor assault. According to the Washington Post, the officer’s attorney has said he believes the jury will acquit his client.
On Monday, the city released nine body camera videos of the incident, allowing concerned citizens to see what happened from the first interaction to the victim’s drive to jail. According to city officials in a statement, the police were not allowed by state law to release the videos to the public until required by a court order.
In the first video, two officers are shown waiting outside a store where the victim, Johnnie Rush, had gone in to buy some beer after they saw him walk through a business’ parking lot—an act they later described as trespassing—and cross the street without using a crosswalk. But it is the second video, originally released by the Citizen-Times and taken from Hickman’s body camera, where the incident almost fully plays out.
In it, Hickman and an officer in training, Verino Ruggerio, exclaim angrily that Rush had crossed the empty street illegally “again and again” after being told not to. (The alleged repeated jaywalking is not captured on camera). “Just because you don’t agree it’s a crime doesn’t mean it’s not a crime,” Ruggerio tells Rush after approaching him. Rush tells Ruggerio that he just got off work and that he just wants to go home.
Hickman tells Ruggerio to “just write him a ticket” and that “he wants to act like a punk.” Rush complains that the officers are harassing him. Hickman then moves toward Rush to grab him, and Rush backs away and runs across the street. “Black male, white tank top, thinks it’s funny,” Hickman says into his radio as he chases after Rush. “You know what’s funny is you’re going to get fucked up hard core. Get on the ground.”
In the struggle that ensues, Hickman yells at Rush to put his hands behind his back as Rush, now pinned to the ground in a chokehold, complains that he can’t. Using the same words as Eric Garner in a video of his killing by police in 2014, Rush cried out, “I can’t breathe.”
Hickman then repeatedly punches Rush in the head and elsewhere as Rush cried out for help. When he pulled out a stun gun and used it on Rush, Rush cried out and tried to grab it. Hickman then hit Rush in the head with it.
“Now it’s serious, bro,” Hickman says as Rush lies quietly on the ground, after Hickman has stopped. Rush asks to “please” be helped up. “Oh it’s a please now?” Hickman says. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” After Rush is picked up off the ground, with a warning “not to do anything or you’ll get hurt further,” Hickman says, “Don’t look at me with your spitty blood face.”
“What happened in these recordings is unacceptable and does not meet the standards of the Asheville Police Department, the values of the City of Asheville, or the expectations of Asheville residents,” city officials said in a statement with the released videos. “Christopher Hickman’s actions violated to the Asheville Police Department’s vision that all people are treated with dignity and respect. These actions have damaged the progress the Asheville Police Department has made in the last several years in improving community trust.”
Hickman resigned in January before the department could fire him and is now under a federal civil rights investigation, according to the city. Ruggerio was reassigned to another officer and “given every indication that he understands that Hickman’s actions were wholly unacceptable,” according to the city. The charges against Rush, which involved assaulting and resisting the police as well as jaywalking and trespassing, were dropped in the fall, according to the Post.
The third video, taken from a supervisor, Sergeant Lisa Taube, gives another angle to the end of the incident, as she holds down his legs. At the end, Hickman explains the incident as Rush “punking out,” running, laughing, “saying ‘fuck you, I can’t wait until you catch me.’ ”
The other videos provide more information to the casual way in which the other officers responded to Hickman’s aggression. The fourth video, Taube speaks to Rush directly, and he explained the incident. She told him he should have did as Hickman asked, and he said he understood but that it did not give Hickman the right to hit him. “What if he killed me?” he said. “Then what?”
“OK,” Taube said. “You were in the wrong.” Taube was later disciplined and required to go through retraining, city officials said.
The other videos provide still more angles and context to understand the incident, as well as a recording from outside the hospital, where Rush was taken after his arrest. According to the Post, Black Lives Matter and other activist groups called for Asheville’s city manager to be removed from his post over the incident. He was dismissed in March.