INVESTIGATION: New documents reveal officer choked suspect

Published: Sep. 24, 2014 at 4:59 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 27, 2014 at 8:44 PM EDT
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The documents state the second time Johnson choked Rivers he asked the teen, "Do you want to...
The documents state the second time Johnson choked Rivers he asked the teen, "Do you want to die in this patrol car tonight?" (Source: WECT)

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - An indicted Wilmington police officer choked a suspect in handcuffs, while asking the teen if he wanted to die, according to preliminary court documents obtained by WECT Tuesday.

The documents involve motions expected to be filed in Superior Court this week to seek records on Corporal James Johnson.

A grand jury indicted Corporal Johnson on misdemeanor charges of simple assault and willful failure to discharge duties in July after an incident earlier this year involving the arrest of 16-year-old Tyrell Rivers.

The documents (Here and Here) provide the most details to date on the alleged use of force case since it came to light in May. An investigation started weeks ago during a routine police audit of videotape involving use of force arrests by Wilmington officers.

According to the documents, Officer Johnson choked Rivers twice while he was handcuffed in the back of the patrol car. The documents state the second time Johnson choked Rivers he asked the teen, "Do you want to die in this patrol car tonight?"

The court documents include a draft copy of an affidavit by SBI Agent Raymond Reeves, who interviewed Johnson during his investigation. Agent Reeves states in the affidavit that Johnson told him that he was using approved defensive tactics taught in past training when choking Rivers.

The SBI interviewed several Wilmington police training officers who stated after reviewing video of the incident that the techniques used by Johnson were not approved tactics that are taught by the WPD.

Agent Reeves also notes in his report that Johnson never mentioned the choke hold in his use of force report, only saying he used a stun gun on Rivers.

The proposed motions, which have yet to be filed in court, are seeking to find any record that Johnson received training on this defensive tactic and whether Johnson has used these tactics in the past.

"We realize that there is pending litigation and court action regarding specific training techniques used by the Wilmington Police Department, therefore we will not make any comment on this matter at this time," responded WPD Deputy Chief Marshall Williamson in response to questions about police tactics used by Johnson.

"However, Wilmington Police Officers are governed by accredited policies and procedures that pertain to use of force matters in general. These policies are public and available for review," Williamson continued.

Johnson is currently on unpaid suspension and is scheduled to be in court on October 13.

On Tuesday evening, Marc Benson, a former law enforcement officer and host of the Blue Line Radio police show, spoke about the court documents and police tactics called into question.

Benson said Officer Johnson could be in deeper legal trouble because of information revealed in the motion.

"If that's factual, then the SBI or the District Attorney's office mischarged him," Benson said. "If he strangled that young man, not once but twice, then that's a Class H felony and he should be looking at indictments on a Class H felony."

According to the Wilmington Police Department's policy manual, officers can only use force they're trained and certified to use. The manual states that officers should only use force to prevent suspect escape or to defend themselves or a third person.

Benson said he had never heard of any type of choke hold being taught as a means to apprehend a suspect.

"It is not in law enforcement training. You can't find a training manual anywhere in the country that says you are to strangle somebody that's in custody," Benson elaborated.

The radio host said that Johnson should have called for back-up if he was having trouble apprehending the suspect.

"He was putting himself at a huge liability, plus there's audio or video evidence of it and law enforcement has to understand that they have limitations on what they can do," he said.

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