Two controversial Mesa police use of force incidents in May and two other fatal shootings in 2017 and 2016 are under review by the FBI to determine if police violated the civil rights of those involved.
Mesa police Detective Steve Flores confirmed the federal probe, saying in a press release that police learned on Tuesday that the two most recent incidents in May are under review.
The May incidents set off a firestorm after Mesa Police Chief Ramon Batista released graphic surveillance videos showing the level of violence used to arrest Robert Johnson at a central Mesa apartment complex, and the arrest of a juvenile as part of an armed robbery investigation at a north Mesa apartment complex during a separate incident.
Batista immediately clarified police policy, restricting the circumstances under which officers are allowed to strike the heads of suspects to self-defense. He called in former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley to monitor an ongoing internal affairs investigation and a national agency to review his department’s history of use of force incidents.
But the federal probe goes beyond the May incidents, according to the press release. It also will examine former Mesa Officer Philip Brailsford’s fatal shooting of Daniel Shaver at an East Mesa hotel and the fatal shooting of Scott Farnsworth near Skyline High School, after a football game.
“Previously, the Department was notified by the FBI, they are reviewing the Officer involved shooting of Scott Farnsworth on Sept. 22, 2017 at 1141 South Crismon for possible civil rights violations in addition to the Officer involved shooting of Daniel Shaver on January 18, 2016,’’ the Mesa police press release said.
A Maricopa County Superior Court jury found Brailsford not guilty of second-degree murder and negligent homicide, but the city still faces millions of dollars in liability from a federal wrongful death lawsuit filed by Laney Sweet, Shaver’s widow.
Farnsworth, 28, was shot near Crismon Road and Southern Avenue. Police said they were responding to a report of a man waving a gun and acting erratically. Officers said they shot Farnsworth because his actions caused them to fear for their lives. Farnsworth was a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq who suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, according to media reports.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery cleared officers of wrongdoing in the Farnsworth case. The federal review comes after Montgomery’s office also decided not to file charges against the seven officers involved in the violent, but non-fatal use of force incidents in May.
But Flores said those officers are still the subject of the internal affairs investigation, remain on paid administrative leave, and could potentially face disciplinary action short of criminal prosecution.
Scottsdale police investigated both incidents at the request of Mesa police. The investigation concluded that there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by an officer who punched Johnson, who refused officer’s commands to sit while they investigated a domestic violence incident.
In a separate statement, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office said prosecutors agreed with the Scottsdale police and that there was no need to submit the case for a formal review of potential charges.
In the second incident, in which police used force in arresting a 15-year-old armed robbery suspect who had fled to an apartment complex, Scottsdale police sent the results of their investigation to the County Attorney’s Office, which again concluded there were no grounds for criminal prosecution.
“The totality of the circumstances reveals that the force applied occurred as a result of efforts to affect the arrest of the suspect and to facilitate a search for a weapon,’’ the county attorney’s statement said. “Arizona law permits the use of reasonable force to effect an arrest.’’
The decision not to charge the officers criminally grated on Roy Tatem, president of the East Valley NAACP, who said the videos demonstrate an unacceptably high level of use of force against suspects.
“People are more frightened, because the police are emboldened to use violence as necessary,’’ Tatem said. “This is showing the police are above the law.’’
But Will Biascoechea, president of the Mesa Fraternal Order of Police, praised the decision: “We’re glad to see the decision not to charge police officers for doing their job. Charging police criminally for doing their job can negatively impact the decision-making process for all law enforcement.”