Monday, May 1, 2017

SPD officer under investigation after grabbing handcuffed man at the throat

Posted By on Mon, May 1, 2017 at 1:14 PM

click to enlarge Officer John O'Brien - COURTESY OF SPD
  • Courtesy of SPD
  • Officer John O'Brien

Jonathan Benson was arrested at the STA Plaza in January 2017, accused of domestic violence. He did not hold back his disagreement with the arrest, nor his scorn for the officers — calling one cop a "peckerwood officer," and telling another to "shut the f—k up!"

Benson, who is homeless and says he is trying to turn his life around, later filed a complaint with Spokane's Office of Police Ombudsman, alleging an unlawful arrest. As the complaint flowed through the department's Internal Affairs office — the entity responsible for investigating allegations of police misconduct — it appears that SPD either missed or ignored potentially excessive force by a veteran officer.

It wasn't until police ombudsman Bart Logue watched the body camera footage, and flagged the questionable conduct, that SPD agreed to question Officer John O'Brien about why he grabbed Benson at the throat while he was on his knees and in handcuffs.

Logue declined to comment on the case directly because Chief Craig Meidl has not yet handed down a disciplinary decision. City law states that the ombudsman cannot influence officer discipline.

In general, though "if I see something questionable, I have to say something," Logue says. "I believe that is the expectation of the office."

HERE'S WHAT HAPPENED:


Benson says he was trying to prevent his girlfriend from fighting another woman, who'd boarded the bus. As he did, a bus driver took a swing at him, and the two got into a scuffle. Another driver stepped in, but not before the first driver called him the N-word, Benson tells the police.

By the time officers arrived, security already had Benson in handcuffs. Two SPD officers talked with him in a holding cell at the bus station.

Benson was being combative, officers say, and at one point stood up on a bench, according to Officer Micah Prim. His partner that day was Officer Brandon Roy, who was fresh out of the academy, so Prim called for backup.

Officers Casey Jones and John O'Brien responded. Benson was cuffed and on his knees when the two arrived and was arguing with police over whether they had good cause to arrest him, according to the internal investigation.

As Benson continued to spew profanities at the officers, O'Brien chimed in. Benson told him to "Shut the f—k up!"

"I'm not going to shut the f—k up!" O'Brien responded and grabbed Benson by the shirt.

"That's assault! That's assault!" Benson said, his voice cracking due to O'Brien's grasp.

Benson was booked into jail, and has since filed a complaint — but not against O'Brien. In an interview with an internal investigator for SPD, Benson explains that his biggest problem was with Prim.

Benson claims that Prim was goading him into being aggressive, rather than de-escalating the situation. Prim told the internal investigator that he tried to remain calm and it was Benson who was being "combative."

Although O'Brien should not have grabbed his collar, Benson says, he believes that the officer would apologize, as he's talked with O'Brien previously.

Still, Benson questions why it was necessary to call for backup when two officers had already detained him in handcuffs.

"I believe they were looking for a reason to hurt me," he told the investigator. "They were trying to get me to react in such a way where they can start using force."

O'Brien, for his part, describes the handcuffed Benson spinning out of Prim's grasp and squaring up to him. That's when O'Brien grabbed him.

"Even though a person is handcuffed, doesn't mean they can't be assaultive," O'Brien told internal investigators later when asked why he felt he needed to grab Benson. "I've been on a call where one person, handcuffed, assaulted three officers, me being one of them. It happens."

He adds: "I grabbed him by the clothing, and I was gonna stop him from spinning around, and I thought he was gonna close distance on me, even though he was on his knees."

The three other officers in the room also told investigators they did not think that O'Brien used excessive force.

"He stuck his arm out and gained control of [Benson's] chest area, it looked like," Prim says.

"[Benson] went towards Officer O'Brien and called him a 'bitch' and ... at that point Officer O'Brien, he grabbed ... looked like he grabbed his shirt or coat or whatever he was wearing," Jones says.

Officers describe Benson as squaring up to O'Brien and "lurching" forward, as if to head-butt the officer.

The Inlander has requested the body camera footage associated with this incident, but SPD's records department will not release the footage until August.

Chief Meidl says he cannot comment on the case because he has not yet had a chance to review the investigation, and has not made a decision on what, if any, discipline O'Brien will face.
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