Federal agents have opened a criminal investigation into a white North Carolina police officer shown on body camera footage beating a black man accused of jaywalking.
State Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Patty McQuillan said in an email Wednesday that an FBI criminal investigation was launched into the actions of Asheville police officer Christopher Hickman on Aug. 25, 2017. She said the state agency is assisting.
Hickman was shown on body camera footage subduing and punching 33-year-old Johnnie Jermaine Rush after officers accused Rush of crossing outside of a crosswalk. Hickman resigned in January.
The case became public after The Citizen-Times newspaper published footage last week. On Wednesday night, angry residents questioned the police chief at a community meeting about why the case was kept from public view for so long.
The case has roiled leaders in Asheville, a mountain tourist destination with a liberal-leaning, mostly white population. Late Monday, the Asheville City Council voted to release a memo detailing how the case was handled.
Rush, whom officers had accused of jaywalking, was also shocked with a stun gun as he screamed in pain. The altercation unfolded around midnight Aug. 25 near the city's minor-league baseball stadium and a cluster of breweries that help fuel a booming tourism industry.
City Manager Gary Jackson wrote in the memo Monday that Hickman's use of "excessive and dangerous force" is "a source of great anger and concern within the community." Asheville's population of nearly 90,000 is 82 percent white and 12 percent black.
Pastor Ronald Gates, who joined other black clergy members in voicing concerns to city leaders last week, said he was appalled not only by "the inhumane act" he saw on the video, but also the length of time it took for details to surface publicly.
However, the leader of Greater Works Church said Tuesday that the memo's release is a step toward restoring trust: "There's a strong stance toward making things right."
According to the memo, an extensive review of body camera footage from all of Hickman's encounters with the public — some 58 hours — revealed four other times in which he "displayed discourteous and rude conduct to members of the public." It's not clear if those four incidents were previously known to Hickman's superiors; Jackson wrote that they didn't result in complaints. The memo doesn't elaborate on what happened in those cases.
The Asheville newspaper's story sparked recriminations over the handling of the case and the video leak. Under North Carolina law, a judge generally must sign off on any public release of police body camera video.
District Attorney Todd Williams issued a statement last week that the video leak could compromise prosecutions and "may require its own independent investigation." Asheville police Chief Tammy Hooper, who issued an apology to Rush, has also called for an investigation of the leak.
Yet on Monday, Asheville City Attorney Robin Currin requested that a judge allow public release of all video surrounding Rush's arrest, noting "it is critical that the public be provided with a complete picture."
The memo gives the most complete account yet of the case.
Hours after he was arrested, Rush filed an excessive force complaint. The memo says the police chief reviewed footage that day, ordered that Hickman turn in his badge and gun and placed him on administrative duty. A supervisor who responded to the scene was also disciplined over the handling of information in the case.
Charges against Rush, including impeding traffic and resisting arrest, were dropped in September. No working phone listing could be found for Rush, who's heard on video saying he was leaving work when officers accused him of failing to use a crosswalk.
After the administrative investigation finished in December, the department concluded Hickman used excessive force. The memo states Hickman was due to be terminated Jan. 5, but he resigned instead at the start of that meeting.
A phone number for Hickman had a full inbox and wouldn't take messages.
Separate from the department's administrative review, the district attorney had previously recommended in January that the SBI probe the case to determine if criminal charges are warranted. However, at the time, the SBI declined to investigate.