Review of Martese Johnson's arresting officers gives new details about bloody incident

Report not adequate, Johnson's lawyer says

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Daniel Watkins (right), the lawyer for Martese Johnson (left), said releasing the report would have a positive public impact.

John Pappas | Cavalier Daily

The administrative review of the Alcoholic Beverage Control officers who arrested fourth-year College student Martese Johnson on St. Patrick’s Day last March has been released by Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office following pressure from lawmakers and Johnson’s lawyer.

McAuliffe called for a review by Virginia State Police shortly after Johnson was arrested by two ABC agents outside of Trinity Irish Pub in a bloody incident. Caught on video, it gained national media attention as another instance of the use of undue force against a black American.

The officers under review waived their right to confidentiality so the report could be made public.

The report — partially redacted to remove witnesses’ names — includes narratives from more than 50 witnesses present at the arrest as well as each of the agents’ training records.

Daniel Watkins, Johnson’s attorney, criticized that the review was performed by a law enforcement agency and not an independent group.

Each of the ABC agents present at the arrest — Special Agent Jared Miller, Special Agent Thomas Custer and Special Agent John Cielakie — were interviewed during the investigation.

In the review, each describes the moment when Johnson and two arresting officers fell to the ground. All officers characterize it as an accident.

Miller and Custer both noted that Johnson’s eyes looked glassy, and when approached and asked for ID, Johnson shrugged them off and began to walk away. Miller said in the report that he believed Johnson “may be attempting to flee,” and that the ensuing struggle between himself, Custer, and Johnson “caused all three to fall to the ground.”

In his account, Custer said he “grasped Johnson’s left arm to aid Miller’s attempt to stop Johnson and conduct his investigation...Johnson attempted to pull away, and Custer’s grip slipped. This caused both Johnson and Custer to fall to the ground.”

Cielakie said he saw a “‘youthful appearing black male’” refusing entry. Miller began to approach the male, saying he was going to check his ID. Cielakie said he observed Custer trip, and all three men fell to the ground.

Trinity bouncers who witnessed the arrest, but did not interact directly with Johnson, were interviewed in the investigation and gave “slightly differing accounts,” according to the report.

One described Johnson’s behavior as “debating” and not threatening, while another employee said Johnson entered a scuffle when an officer asked to see his ID, was refused, then reached for his phone. He said he “saw blood about 15 seconds later.” A third bouncer standing outside Trinity at the time of the arrest said “Johnson kept walking away,” describing the officers’ initial touch as “timid” but later “stronger.”

The review also includes interviews from numerous other witnesses present at the event, including other members of local law enforcement, students, and friends of Johnson.

Initial requests made by Johnson’s legal team, media organizations and lawmakers to release the report were denied on the basis of the confidentiality of personnel files.

However, “citing an interest in transparency and providing a full account of the circumstances in the case,” the ABC agents involved have waived protection of their personnel files to release the report to the public, according to an accompanying statement of the review.

While the arrest itself exposed the need for policy changes, the information presented in the report supports the ABC’s decision to reinstate the agents in question, said a statement released by McAuliffe’s office.

“Going forward, my team and I will continue to evaluate the proposals submitted by the expert review panel I convened in the wake of this incident to ensure that we are doing everything we can to keep Virginians safe with the utmost professionalism and respect,” McAuliffe said in the statement.

Watkins said he applauds the governor for releasing the report but is concerned with the conduct of the investigation.

As an internal investigation by one law enforcement agency on another, the report “did not match” with transparency, thoroughness and independence, Watkins said.

“Generally speaking, as a practice, if a law enforcement agency is accused of misconduct then it makes sense for an independent investigatory body — whether it be citizens or lawmakers, whatever it may be – to lead the case,” he said.

Watkins, who is an attorney for the firm Williams Mullen, said he believes releasing the report was the right step nonetheless.

“That said, we are happy it’s been released and we are currently reviewing it to determine what the next steps will be,” Watkins said.

Johnson has not yet indicated that he will pursue a civil lawsuit, but Watkins said further legal action is a possibility.

Proposals made by the Expert ABC Enforcement Review Panel were also released Tuesday.

The panel recommended the implementation of body worn cameras when conducting enforcement activities and the establishment of liaison relationships between ABC, local police and institutions of higher education.

The panel was commissioned by Executive Order 40 — signed by McAuliffe March 25 — and was headed by Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, to look into the existing policies and procedures of the ABC.

“I deeply appreciate the thoughtful and candid discussions from expert review panel members that led to the recommendations outlined in this report,” Moran said in a press release from ABC.

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