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On The Day Of George Floyd’s Death, An Arizona State Trooper Killed A Man In Phoenix

Dion Johnson’s family wants answers about the last moments of his life.

(Photo by Meg O’Connor)

More than 300 protesters have been arrested in Phoenix, but the officer who shot and killed Dion Johnson last week has yet to be named.

Over the last eight days, thousands of people have marched in downtown Phoenix to demand justice for George Floyd and Dion Johnson, who was killed by an Arizona state trooper on the same day Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed Floyd. The Department of Public Safety and the Phoenix Police Department, which is investigating the shooting, have released little information about the incident, though they did say the officer who killed Johnson was not wearing a camera.

“[There are] a lot of questions unanswered,” Johnson’s mother, Erma Johnson, said at a vigil for her son at Eastlake Park last Friday night. “A lot of things that I would want to know that happened to my son in the last minutes of his life.”

Around 5:30 a.m. on May 25, a DPS trooper found 28-year-old Johnson asleep in his car, pulled off to the side of the Loop 101 Freeway near Tatum Boulevard. According to Phoenix police, after the trooper came into contact with Johnson, “there was a struggle,” and the trooper shot him. A second trooper arrived and removed Johnson from his car. The Phoenix Fire Department took Johnson to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Police have not named the trooper who shot Johnson, but said he is a 54-year-old man who has worked for the department for 15 years.

Johnson’s family has started a GoFundMe fundraiser to help with funeral costs. Family members are demanding that police release the report on his shooting, return his belongings to them, release the highway traffic camera footage, name the officer who shot him, and fire and charge the officer.

“It is time for change. … I just can’t imagine his last minutes. What he went through. That kills me. That tears me. Because they treated him like an animal. Laid him on the street to bleed to death, while they were conversing over here, talking, while my son was shot laying on the ground. Handcuffed,” his mother said at the vigil, surrounded by a crowd of nearly 1,000 people, many holding candles for Dion.

“Officer, if you’re looking at me, I want to tell you, you’re home with your family,” Erma Johnson said. “My loved one is gone. And I am going to get justice if that’s the last thing I do.”

On Wednesday, a local news station obtained traffic camera footage of the moments after Johnson was shot. It shows two troopers standing over his body as he writhes on the ground for several minutes. It took five minutes for medics, who were parked nearby, to approach Johnson.

Pressed to provide more information about the shooting, Phoenix police said Wednesday there is “no known video capturing the shooting. Neither of the troopers were equipped with body-worn cameras. There is no dash-camera video because both troopers were on motorcycles. The ADOT highway cameras are live feed cameras that do not record.”

Without naming the trooper, police have since provided his version of the moments before Johnson’s death. The trooper said when he came into contact with Johnson, Johnson was asleep in the driver’s seat and the trooper “smelled an odor of alcohol, saw beer cans, and a gun.” The trooper removed the gun, returned to his vehicle, secured it, and requested backup. He returned to Johnson and attempted to arrest him, at which point the trooper said Johnson grabbed him. The trooper said he feared he may be pushed into oncoming traffic, so he drew his weapon and issued commands. Johnson complied. Then, the trooper said, when he holstered his gun, Johnson reached for it, so the trooper shot and killed him.

But audio of the dispatch call made by the trooper tells a slightly different story. The call, which lasts a little over four minutes, begins with the trooper finding Johnson asleep in his vehicle. The trooper notes the smell of alcohol and open containers, but doesn’t say anything about a gun. Fifty-six seconds of silence follow the trooper’s observation. After that, another trooper observing the traffic camera says the trooper on the ground is fighting with Johnson. Then shots are fired. 

“This is the most horrific thing I’ve seen as a mother to have a human being treated like that,” Johnson’s mother said at a press conference on Wednesday. “Why? Why? Why would you do this to my son? Why couldn’t you administer some kind of medical aid for him? He could’ve been alive to this day, but they held everybody up, so he could obviously lay down on the ground and die.”

Every five days, an Arizona police officer shoots at someone, an investigation by the Arizona Republic found. In 2018, Phoenix police shot at more people than any other police department in the country, despite having roughly 3,000 officers compared with the NYPD’s 36,000. 

Tensions between police and the community in the fifth-largest city in America had been building for years as police-reform advocates’ repeated calls for change, accountability, and transparency largely fell on deaf ears. In 2010, a community outreach task force was created after Phoenix police handcuffed and assaulted a Black City Council member and retired police officer while he was trying to help his neighbor, whose house was on fire. But the task force went nowhere. In 2015, another “community trust” initiative sprang up, this time on the heels of the brutal killings of Michelle Cusseaux and Rumain Brisbon, both of whom were shot by police in incidents that drew national attention.

But it wasn’t until last summer that things finally seemed to reach a tipping point. In June, two back-to-back high-profile incidents of police misconduct again brought the nation’s attention to the Phoenix Police Department and led to the firing of two cops. First, nearly 100 officers were caught sharing racist, Islamophobic content and glorifying violence against protesters on Facebook. Some officers called Black people “thugs” and Muslims rapists. Police Chief Jeri Williams called the posts “embarrassing and disturbing” and launched an internal investigation into the posts made by 72 current officers. One was fired

About a week later, video of a police officer threatening to shoot an unarmed Black man in the head was widely shared. Police confronted 22-year-old Dravon Ames and his family after he, his pregnant fiance, and their two young children left a dollar store. Police accused Ames of stealing underwear and said his 4-year-old daughter had taken a doll. Though Ames was complying with his commands, Officer Christopher Meyer continued to point his gun at Ames while screaming “I’m gonna put a fucking cap in your fucking head.”

Again, Williams vowed to investigate the incident. She later fired Meyer, but not the other officers involved. Inundated by outcry from community members who were shocked and concerned by the actions of the police, Williams and Mayor Kate Gallego held a meeting to hear from city residents. Over 2,600 people packed into pews at a Baptist church downtown to voice their frustrations.  

At a budget meeting one week after the video’s release, community members pressured the City Council not to pass a $721 million budget for the police department without adopting a civilian review board. Carlos Garcia, a former activist leader who was a newly elected City Council member, demanded that the city create a civilian review board and an ad hoc committee to implement reforms that had been recommended, but never carried out, by prior committees. Mayor Gallego promised to do so. In August, she established an ad hoc committee on police reform. The committee was supposed to wrap up this month, but it and other ad hoc committees have all but fizzled out during the pandemic.

In the months that followed the police reform committee’s establishment, additional officers accused of egregious misconduct like stalking or committing crimes were fired, bringing the total number of officers fired by Chief Williams in 2019 to six. Earlier this year, the family of Jacob Harris, who was shot and killed by police in January 2019, filed a lawsuit against the city claiming an officer lied to a grand jury. A week later, members of the police department’s Special Assignment Unit—the same unit that shot Jacob Harris—mistakenly shot a sickly Black teenager with a rubber bullet, sending him to the hospital. (The Maricopa county attorney’s office declined to seek charges against the officers who shot and killed Harris and instead charged Harris’s friends with felony murder.) 

Then in February, the community’s calls for civilian oversight of Phoenix police finally materialized. A lengthy and tense City Council meeting ended with a surprise win for activists, who managed to get their powerful model for civilian oversight passed. While it marked a significant victory for police reform advocates, there is still plenty of work to be done to ensure the oversight model is funded, staffed, and codified in a way that actually gives it the powers activists have been seeking. 

On Wednesday, activist groups like Poder in Action, Puente, and the Black Phoenix Organizing Collective held a rally outside the City Council chambers, where a budget meeting was taking place. They demanded the city defund the police department by 25 percent and put some of the department’s $744 million budget into programs that create safe and healthy communities. 

Over 600 people gathered despite the 110-degree temperatures, holding signs like “Welcome to Phoenix: Home of Killer Cops” and chanting “No justice, no peace. Defund the police.” The public comment portion of the council meeting lasted for nearly six hours, with close to 200 people demanding the city defund the police department and fully fund the civilian oversight model, the Office of Accountability and Transparency. Creating the new city agency requires a few million dollars in funding, yet the city has allocated only $400,000 for the office. 

Garcia, who was wearing a shirt that said “I can’t breathe” at Wednesday’s meeting, motioned to add another $2.5 million in funding for the office. But the motion failed, with some council members citing concerns about revenue loss during the coronavirus outbreak. The council was unable to come to a consensus on the budget on Wednesday and will meet again on Monday.

These demands for change grow louder with each periodic, attention-grabbing instance of racism and violence from Phoenix police officers. And amid the community’s victories in its fight for change, new instances of police brutality against people of color in Phoenix have continued to occur, while justice for old ones remains out of reach.

Against this backdrop, protesters in Phoenix joined with thousands of others nationwide to voice their outrage and once again call for an end to violence against people of color at the hands of police.

The first few nights of protests largely followed the same pattern: A vast majority of the demonstration and the protesters are peaceful; toward the end of the evening, a small group of attendees branch off to deface property or throw water bottles, which the police respond to with tear gas, flashbangs, rubber bullets, and orders to disperse. But on Sunday, after a curfew had been established, police escalated their tactics, trapping protesters in a downtown neighborhood and arresting hundreds. Although people have continued to gather by the hundreds each day, the demonstrations since then have disbanded before the curfew began, with few altercations between protesters and police.

“On Sunday after the Emergency Declaration was issued, we made all necessary announcements,” Sgt. Mercedes Fortune, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Police Department, told The Appeal in an email. “We made efforts to educate many of what the curfew meant. In an effort to once again insure the safety of the City.”  

“There is no sure way to control the actions of a large group of people who make a conscious decision to ignore the announcements and curfew,” Fortune added. “We would encourage anyone who has any concerns or complaints to please contact our Professional Standard Bureau.”

Although the protests in Phoenix have not reached the level of intensity seen elsewhere in the country—where police officers have rammed cars into protesters and maced children, and protesters have set buildings ablaze—there have been a few recorded instances of violence from police and hundreds of arrests. And the city is already facing lawsuits after police copied and pasted the same probable cause statement for multiple arrests made over the weekend. One couple told the local ABC affiliate they were driving downtown after a date when they were stopped by police officers and pulled from their car at gunpoint. They were charged with rioting but were released.

In a video captured Thursday by a reporter from the ABC affiliate, police can be seen throwing a woman to the ground while she appeared to be going to her parked car. A crack can be heard as her head hits the ground, then she can be seen clutching her head and writhing around as she screams, “I just fucking hit my head, they just threw me to the fucking ground, oh my God, oh my God, my car is right there!” Police respond by telling her she’s under arrest.

“We have been made aware of various incidents and are looking into them,” Fortune said. “When dealing with arrests in the hundreds, our priority is safety.”

Last Friday, Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro organized a vigil for Dion Johnson. His mother, sisters, cousins, aunts, and other loved ones spoke at the vigil, remembering him fondly and questioning the police’s narrative of events. Johnson’s loved ones say he was not the type of person to argue with a police officer.

“He was a good guy. He loved everybody,” Erma Johnson said to the crowd. “He is my heart. He used to tell me, ‘Mom, I’m gonna be the one that’s gonna be here for you when you get old and help you out.’ … He was the one that confirmed my life like he was gonna be there no matter what.” 

“That he would be the one to be there and take care of me until I went. I should be the one laying here in a casket, not him.”

Though the protests continued to remain largely peaceful, on Saturday night, in the nearby, upscale neighborhood of Scottsdale, a few dozen people looted stores in Fashion Square. Governor Doug Ducey—who was slow to issue a stay-at-home order when COVID-19 took hold in Arizona and is already reopening the state against the advice of public health experts—declared a statewide, weeklong curfew. Those who violate the curfew, which is in effect from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., could face up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

The police presence in downtown Phoenix after curfew on Sunday was significant, with the hundreds of the city’s police officers and vehicles stationed throughout the area augmented by state troopers and backup from neighboring police forces. Armored vehicles and helicopters were also deployed.

Just before 9 p.m., police deployed tear gas as protesters approached the blockaded interstate, causing many of them to flee. The wind carried the gas and created confusion. Protesters splintered off in different directions, but they had been boxed in by police, who had closed off the Garfield neighborhood and began to arrest protesters en masse. As protesters attempted to retreat, they found that every intersection was blocked by several police vehicles and even more officers standing outside. That night, Phoenix police made over 200 arrests for rioting, unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct, and curfew violations.

In the chaos, one man said Phoenix police shot his partner with a rubber bullet at close range. “Once they realized what they had done, they dropped him off at the ER without any of his belongings,” said David Duran on Twitter. (Duran declined to speak with The Appeal for this article, citing legal concerns.) “My [boyfriend] didn’t need to have his arm broken last night by a rubber bullet before being arrested and made to wait 3 hours before taking him to the ER. Now he’s waiting to go into surgery, all for walking peacefully with a protest sign.”

Elsewhere that night, residents of the Garfield neighborhood were detained simply for standing outside and watching what was unfolding from their own property, the Arizona Republic reported. Elizabeth Lamay was filming the police from her front lawn when an officer told her she could be arrested for violating curfew. Lamay said she was on her own property. In a video obtained by the Republic, the officer then said, “You think you guys know. You think you know everything.” The officer then forced Lamay to the ground and handcuffed her, though she was later released without being cited.

“Why am I under arrest? We live here? That’s my car!” Lamay can be heard asking in the video.

Another Garfield resident, Joanna Repucci, told the Republic she was doing yard work around 9 p.m. when she heard popping sounds. It was pepper spray. But Repucci, who has asthma, didn’t know that and collapsed as she went to close the gate to her property. When she woke up, the Republic reported, an officer was handcuffing her. A neighbor intervened and police let her go.