At the urging of the city's Citizens' Police Review Board chair, the U.S. Attorney's Office says it's investigating whether a homeless man's civil rights were violated last year when he was arrested by an Orlando Police officer.
"We are currently reviewing information pertaining to that incident," says William Daniels, a spokesman for the office, which operates under the U.S. Attorney General. "No further information is available at this time."
Last August, videos from a police body camera and cellphone show Officer James Wilson approaching Terre Johnson, who was sitting on the curb along Ossie Street. Wilson confronted Johnson for sitting on city-owned property and having his feet in the street. In the body cam video, Johnson repeatedly tells Wilson he isn't doing anything wrong, while Wilson threatens to arrest him for camping on public property and suggests the homeless man won't be able to pay a citation.
"Get out my face," Johnson tells Wilson before he was tackled to the ground by the officer.
After Wilson tells Johnson to stop resisting, his body cam shuts off, and an Orlando Police spokesperson told the Orlando Sentinel that the camera stopped recording because the cord disconnected. A cellphone video captures the rest of the confrontation.
OPD says both men were injured in the fight. Johnson, who was charged with resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer, had his charges downgraded to simple battery and was ultimately found not guilty in the incident, the Sentinel reports. OPD launched an Internal Affairs investigation into the incident, finding that "Mr. Johnson began to walk away from Officer Wilson disobeying his lawful commands, and when Officer Wilson attempted to go hands on with Mr. Johnson in order to make the arrest, Mr. Johnson violently resisted Officer Wilson and began to batter the officer."
Internal Affairs found Wilson violated rules regarding conduct toward the public, but exonerated him on the use of force against Johnson. You can read a summary of the Internal Affairs investigation below. 15-53_Summary.pdf
The Citizens' Review Board did not agree with OPD's decision to exonerate Wilson and sent a letter to OPD Chief John Mina about the incident. You can read the full letter below. 2016APR13-CPRB-LetterToChiefMina_15-53.pdf
"Officer Wilson did not issue any commands to Mr. Johnson to stop or place him under arrest," the letter says. "As such, Mr. Johnson has a constitutional right to leave. … Incidents such as these, followed by exonerations, combine to have a toxic effect upon the relationship between citizens and police."
Citizens' Review Board chair Henry Lim says he referred the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office because he felt Johnson's civil rights were potentially violated.
"Johnson was never told to stop or that he was under arrest before being attacked by a police officer," he says. "I didn't see local authorities taking any action."
Lim says he also saw a potential conflict in that Wilson has family related to local police union president Shawn Dunlap. James Preston, president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, has criticized Lim and accused him of "politicizing the case to further his campaign for the State House District 47 seat," according to the Sentinel.
Lim says he's not playing politics with the case and is not an "anti-police" figure.
"I'm not in this to gain publicity," he says. "I did it as a concerned citizen. Whatever the U.S. Attorney's Office decides, I will live with. I think the overwhelming majority of police do an excellent job … but my main concern is to make sure we don't mess with the relationship that the community has with the police. We need a strong relationship. That's the only way we can maintain a safe community."
Lim adds the Citizens' Review Board is trying to schedule a meeting for later this month about how to make the board more effective. The board's decisions are non-binding and more of a recommendation. Mina told the Sentinel that OPD would go along with the investigation, though he doesn't think it's under the scope of the U.S. Attorney's Office. When Orlando Weekly asked for further comment, a police spokesperson sent us this statement from the city:
"The City recognizes the importance of outside review, which is why we have an established process that involves multiple levels of review and includes outside agencies," the statement says. "We remain committed to ensuring transparency and certainly welcome any additional review."