Wilmington Police Chief, victim's family respond to indictment of WPD officer

Published: Jun. 24, 2014 at 5:02 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 26, 2014 at 2:13 AM EDT
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Cpl. James Johnson was indicted by a Grand Jury on misdemeanor charges of simple assault and...
Cpl. James Johnson was indicted by a Grand Jury on misdemeanor charges of simple assault and wilful failure to discharge duties. He faces a combined 180 days in jail for the charges. (Source: WECT)
Tyrell Rivers declined to comment. (Source: WECT)
Tyrell Rivers declined to comment. (Source: WECT)

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - A Grand Jury in New Hanover County indicted a Wilmington Police officer Monday on charges related to the use of excessive force.

The case involves WPD Corporal James Johnson's recent arrest of 16-year-old Tyrell Rivers.

Johnson was indicted by a Grand Jury on misdemeanor charges of simple assault and wilful failure to discharge duties. He faces a combined 180 days in jail for the charges.

He was placed under a $5,000 unsecured bond and unpaid suspension. Johnson is set to appear in court on August 11.

The SBI became involved in this case when District Attorney Ben David contacted the agency after seeing surveillance video from inside the police cruiser at the time of Rivers' arrest.

The video at the center of this investigation surfaced after an audit by the Wilmington Police Department. The video in question involves Cpl. Johnson attempting to subdue Rivers during the arrest.

Rivers was charged for resisting arrest, felony possession of heroin, misdemeanor marijuana possession, trespassing, and possession of drug paraphernalia on April 4 in the Jervay Community.

David said Rivers is being treated as a witness and the victim of a possible assault by an officer in this case.

In court Monday, Michael McGuinness, the attorney representing Officer Johnson, accused Rivers of making threats towards Johnson the night he was taken into custody. After being placed in the police cruiser, McGuinness said Rivers attempted to kick the window out of the car.

McGuinness said his client was using a pressure point technique called "brachial flexus" to try and subdue Rivers. Throughout the incident Rivers is accused of kicking Johnson, and using wicked, mean, spiteful and racist language, according to McGuinness.

Johnson did not pursue charges because he was not injured from the kick.

District Attorney Ben David, however, sees things differently.

According to the DA, three other officers from the WPD, that have seen the video in question, said Johnson was not using the pressure point technique.

The judge presiding over the case would not let Johnson testify before the grand jury; to which David said, "The tape will speak for itself."

Family members and supporters of Rivers gathered at the New Hanover County Courthouse anxiously anticipating the grand jury's decision Monday afternoon.

Once the indictment announcement was made, Rivers' mother delivered a simple message: "Justice was served on behalf of Tyrell."

Katy Parker, an attorney retained by Alston, agreed with the mother's sentiments. Parker filed a motion in court in hopes of getting the video of the incident released for the public to see. The judge denied the motion.

"I think the Grand Jury clearly saw the video and the Grand Jury came up with its own decision. I think the community has a right to see that video and decide for themselves," Parker said.

Vance Williams, a spokesperson for Rivers' family, thinks the video needs to be released to maintain the community-police relationship in Wilmington.

"This is a big case that happened with a young person and young people right now want to know what actually happened," Williams said. "So to not release the video, I think it creates a great wedge between the community and the police as far as the relationship."

Robert Campbell, a pastor with the Wilmington Ministry Alliance, hopes this case sparks positive change and leads to better training within the WPD.

"Here was a situation where the Grand Jury came back and said let's take this to court," Campbell said. "We're very pleased because we're concerned about that kind of thing going on in our community."

The group declined to comment when asked if they thought Johnson's police career should be over following his indictment.

Rivers also declined to comment.

In response to the indictment, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous released this message to his department. The message was sent to WECT from an anonymous source.

For the past few weeks the State Bureau of Investigations has been conducting an investigation into a Use-of-Force incident involving Wilmington Police Department personnel.  Today the results of that investigation were taken before the Grand Jury.  At approximately 4:30 p.m. the New Hanover County Grand Jury indicted Officer Corporal James Coley Johnson on two misdemeanor charges of Simple Assault and Failure to Discharge Duties.  He will be placed on Administrative Leave without pay pending the outcome of the court proceedings and our internal investigation.

While today's outcome causes great concern and despair, our thoughts are with his family, the agency and the community at-large.  This is a stressful time, but we will get through this together.

Thank you for the hard work that you do in keeping our community safe.

Chief Ralph Evangelous

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