Lawsuit alleges excessive force against a Black man by Aurora police

The Aurora Police Department is facing another lawsuit alleging excessive force against a Black man, this time during a 2021 traffic stop that ended in the man being dragged out of his car, tased and arrested.

Antonio Johnson, 43, was stopped on Aug. 22, 2021, for incorrectly displaying a temporary license plate, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court and a police statement in video footage provided by Johnson’s attorney. Johnson was “generally complying” with officers’ demands but not perfectly, the complaint states, and rather than de-escalating the situation by talking calmly to him, the officers chose to escalate. Johnson was arrested on charges of obstructing a peace officer, driving under restraint, driving under the influence and having an open alcohol container in a vehicle, court records show. All of the charges were later dismissed.

“This case is a perfect example of the problems in the Aurora Police Department,” attorney Adam Frank said. “What you see on video is that Aurora police officers encounter a Black man in their investigation, and despite the fact that he is not violent, that he is not threatening, that he is not accused of having done anything violent, that he is not trying to flee, the simple fact that they perceive him as being slow to perfectly comply with every single one of their orders, means they resort to force.”

That’s what the Colorado attorney general’s report showed after the investigation into the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain — an unarmed Black man who died after a violent arrest with Aurora police — and why Aurora is subject to a consent decree, Frank added. The attorney general’s report found a pattern of racial bias and use of excessive force routinely in violation of state and federal law.

And Johnson was “keenly aware” of the incident that led to McClain’s during his traffic stop, according to the lawsuit.

Aurora police declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday, with a spokesperson saying they had just received the complaint and needed time to review it. Frank said he informed officials on May 26 that a lawsuit would be forthcoming, but it was filed in court on Thursday. Defendants listed are the city of Aurora and police officers Caleb Parrella and Brendan Daves.

Frank provided body camera footage of Johnson’s interaction with police from when he was pulled over until he was on the ground, face down, in handcuffs. The recording lasts about 5 minutes and 30 seconds, after which the clip cuts off because Frank said it included sensitive medical information.

After an officer tells Johnson why he pulled him over, Johnson offers to fix the temporary plate placement, but the officer tells him not to and to provide his license and registration. The officer asks Johnson why he’s freaking out, the video shows. Johnson tells him he doesn’t have his license, and repeatedly tells the officer he doesn’t want the officer to hurt him.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s girlfriend, who is a passenger in the car, keeps asking Johnson where the insurance card is located. The officer repeatedly tells Johnson to relax, the video shows.

After an officer finds an empty alcohol container in the back seat of the car, according to the lawsuit, the other officer asks Johnson to turn off the car and put his hands on the steering wheel. Johnson complies with turning off the car, as can be seen in the video, but he keeps his hands up near the steering wheel, throws out his cigarette and tells his girlfriend he loves her, the footage shows.

The officer then asks Johnson to put his right hand on his head as his girlfriend is pleading with him and the officer to stop, the video shows. Johnson does not move and the officer starts to pull him out of the car. His girlfriend asks him not to “resist” and he tells the officer not to hurt his girlfriend.

According to the lawsuit, two officers were pulling on Johnson’s arms to get him out of the car, one from the driver-side door and the other from the rear driver’s side.

As an officer is pulling on Johnson’s right arm to get him out of the car while his girlfriend his holding onto him, she tells the officer to let him stay in the car as she gets his seatbelt off of him, the video shows.

Although Johnson’s girlfriend was ultimately able to unbuckle the seatbelt, because the officer was pulling Johnson’s right arm up in the air, the seatbelt got stuck on his shoulder, the lawsuit states. When Johnson tried to use his left hand to get out of the seatbelt to respond to an officer’s order, one of the officers yells at him to stop and hits him in the face, according to the lawsuit.

“From Mr. Johnson’s perspective, there was no way to comply with the Defendants’ confusing and contradictory orders. When he tried, he was ordered to stop and was hit in the face. To try to stay safe, all Mr. Johnson could do was do his best to stay still and hope the Defendants would not hurt him further,” according to the lawsuit.

The video then shows one of the officers tasing Johnson and Johnson gets pulled out of the car and onto the ground. Johnson’s girlfriend can be heard yelling and crying, asking them not to hurt Johnson, as an officer yells at her to get back and then to get on the ground and on her stomach. The officers continue to yell commands at Johnson, who is asking them not to do anything in front of his girlfriend.

Johnson and his girlfriend continue to shout to each other throughout the encounter as police yell at them, and an officer uses a baton to get Johnson to move both his hands behind his back before they handcuff him, the video shows.

Frank told The Denver Post that while Johnson didn’t perfectly comply with officers’ commands, “what he did was stay perfectly still.”

“And he’s just so scared by what is going on that all he thinks is, ‘I just have to remain still,’ and he keeps his hands where they can see them,” Frank said. “And that’s showing that he’s not a threat. ”

Nothing Johnson did should have led to the use of excessive force, but that’s how Aurora trains its officers, Frank said.

The lawsuit alleges a violation of Johnson’s federal and state constitutional rights and that the police department’s own policies are what led to the actions of the officers on Aug. 22, 2021. It does not specify an exact amount of damages requested for payout.

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