ASHEVILLE, NC — A western North Carolina police officer who resigned after a body camera video shows him hitting and using a Taser on a man suspected of jaywalking will face preliminary charges of assault, the Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office said Thursday.
Senior Police Officer Christopher Hickman, 31, was removed from patrol duty a day after the incident last August and resigned from the Asheville Police Department in January, the same day he was to be terminated, according to a timeline of the case released by the Asheville City Council.
On Thursday, a judge issued a warrant for Hickman’s arrest on one count each of assault by strangulation, assault inflicting serious injury and communicating threats.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said Hickman has been taken into custody. It is unclear whether Hickman has an attorney.
CNN reached out to the Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Asheville and didn’t receive an immediate comment.
The release of body cam video in late February caused outrage in this North Carolina city in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The video shows Hickman and an officer in training stopping Johnnie Jermaine Rush, then 32, for allegedly jaywalking in the early morning hours of August 25, 2017.
After initial words were exchanged, Hickman moves to arrest Rush, who then flees on foot, according to video of the incident published by the Asheville Citizen-Times on February 28.
“(He) thinks it’s funny,” Hickman is heard saying as he chases Rush. “You know what’s funny is you’re gonna get f—ed up hardcore.”
The officers catch Rush and tackle him. As Rush is being restrained on the ground, Hickman punches him in the head several times, shoots him with a stun gun and chokes him.
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Rush repeatedly yells. “Help! Help!”
Later in the video, Hickman speaks with another officer.
“I beat the s— out of his head,” Hickman says. “Not gonna lie about that.”
The violent arrest is one of several videotaped instances in recent years that have generated anger and public debate about police use of force.
Hickman did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. Rush could not be reached for comment.
A spokesman for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation said that the FBI has launched an investigation into the incident, according to the Citizen-Times. The US Department of Justice told CNN it never comments on whether there is an investigation.
Tempers flared at a town hall meeting Wednesday as locals expressed their frustration and anger about the incident, according to CNN affiliate WLOS. Amid the outcry, police Chief Tammy Hooper said she would resign if it would help resolve the problem, WLOS reported.
CNN called the police department but was unable to get a comment from the chief.
“There is no excuse for what happened to Johnnie Rush,” the ACLU of North Carolina said in a tweet. “Police must protect and serve everyone, regardless of race. Instead, a Black man gets beaten, tased, and choked over jaywalking. That’s right, jaywalking.”
Manheimer apologized to Rush in a statement on behalf of the City Council.
“The City Council and I immediately contacted city administration to express our outrage at the treatment of Mr. Rush and our outrage of not being informed about the actions of APD officers,” Manheimer wrote. “We will have accountability and, above all, transparency.”
Manheimer said the council wants to review how the incident was handled by police administrators and to look at police policies and training.
Officer resigned before termination
Rush initially was charged with second-degree trespassing and resisting a public officer. He filed a complaint with police the day he was arrested alleging Hickman used excessive force.
Chief Hooper watched the body camera footage, according to the timeline, and ordered Hickman off the street and told him to turn in his badge and gun. He was placed on administrative duty after Rush’s complaint.
“The whole thing is bad, right? When I watched the video, I had the same reaction as probably you did when you watched it,” Hooper told WLOS. “It’s just a terrible, egregious case. The whole reason around the stop to begin with was just a bad thing from start to finish.”
The district attorney and Asheville police agreed to dismiss the charges against Rush in September after watching the body camera footage, according to documents from the City Council.
“The acts demonstrated in the video were egregious and unacceptable,” Asheville police said. “Therefore, APD requested that all charges against Mr. Rush related to this incident be dropped, to which the DA agreed and dismissed them.”
Officials then went back and reviewed 58 hours of Hickman’s body camera footage and found four other instances in which he displayed “discourteous and rude conduct to members of the public,” according to the timeline.
In January, Hooper moved to fire Hickman but the officer resigned first.
Hooper also asked a detective to investigate whether Hickman committed criminal assault in the interaction, according to the timeline. That investigation is ongoing.
“The acts demonstrated in this video are unacceptable and contrary to the department’s vision and the progress we have made in the last several years in improving community trust,” the police chief said in a statement.
“Officers know that they must earn the trust of our community by providing fair and respectful service. That very clearly did not happen during the incident depicted and for that I apologize to Mr. Rush, as well as the community,” Hooper said.
‘I can’t breathe’
The body camera video published online by the Citizen-Times begins as Hickman and an officer in training decide to get out of the car and talk to Rush. They say in the video that they had just warned him not to jaywalk.
“You ain’t got nothing better to do besides mess with me, and I’m trying to go home,” Rush says. “I just got off of work, man. I’m tired.”
The officer in training says he saw Rush fail to use a crosswalk four times in a row.
“I was polite with you and asked you, use the crosswalk. I know what you’re doing man,” the officer in training says. “You think I’m a punk. Guess what, I’m not. I don’t think you’re a punk either.”
The officer in training says he can either arrest Rush or write him a ticket. After more words are exchanged, the officer in training begins to write a ticket.
“Ya’ll ain’t got s— better to do besides harass somebody about f—ing walking,” Rush says.
Hickman then tells Rush to put his hands behind his back. As the officers approach, Rush flees.
The officers catch up to him and tackle him to the ground. They order him to put his hands behind his back, and he says he can’t.
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
Hickman picks up his stun gun and shoots Rush on the ground, who screams in pain. The video shows Hickman putting his left hand around Rush’s throat and ordering him to put his hands behind his back.
“I can’t!” Rush says.
‘I beat the s— out of his head’
Other officers arrive on the scene, and Rush is handcuffed on the ground.
“All this over you getting a ticket? Now it’s serious, bro,” Hickman says.
Hickman then begins yelling at Rush and asks him, “What’s wrong with you?”
“Stop yelling at me,” Rush says.
“Well, then get up and we’ll put you in a car, tough boy,” Hickman says.
Officers help Rush up, the video shows, and as Hickman moves him over to his patrol car, he pushes Rush’s head down.
“Stop, man, you ain’t got to do all of that,” Rush says.
“Don’t look at me with your spitty, blood face,” Hickman responds.
“Yeah, because you’ve been hitting me in my face,” Rush says.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Hickman says.
“So that give you the right to punch me in my face?” Rush says.
“Unfortunately, it is,” officer says.
Later, Hickman speaks with a supervisor on the scene about what happened. The city manager identified the person as a supervisor.
“He started throwing a fit on the sidewalk. I told him to get his hands behind his back, and it was on from there. (He) ran, laughing, saying ‘f— you,’ ‘can’t wait til you catch me.’ So we caught him,” Hickman says.
“Then he wanted to fight. Tried to drag the Taser out of my hand, and then I just went on his f—ing head. I beat the s— out of his head. Not gonna lie about that.”
The supervisor tasked with reviewing cases of use of force failed to forward any information or notes from Hickman or Rush and did not review the body camera footage, according to the City Council timeline. That supervisor was disciplined and ordered to undergo more training.