James “Coley” Johnson joined the Wilmington, North Carolina Police Department in the summer of 1989. He was promoted to the rank of corporal, receiving multiple commendations for his dedication and service to the community and served the department as a field training officer for younger officers.
Coley was called, with other officers, to a disturbance in a Wilmington public housing project in April 4, 2014. When the police arrived, several people followed law enforcement commands but one, Tyrell Rivers, fled. After a brief chase, it was clear why Rivers ran – he had both marijuana and heroin in his pocket and he was an unwelcome trespasser at the housing project. As the Bloods gang member was detained, he became combative, hurling racial epithets and threatening the officers repeatedly, daring them to remove his handcuffs.
When Rivers was placed in the back of a police car, he leaned back and began trying to kick out the door window. Coley Johnson reached into the car and attempted to subdue Rivers by momentarily using a pressure point control hold while instructing the non-compliant subject to stop. As soon as Cpl. Johnson withdrew, Rivers immediately began kicking the window again. Rivers was pulled from the police car and a “hobble” was placed around his ankles to prevent damage to the vehicle and avoid injury to either Rivers or the police. While out of the car, Rivers continued to threaten, curse, and challenge the police.
When placed back into the police car with the restrictive hobble in place, Rivers quickly repositioned himself and began to kick both Cpl. Johnson and the car door. Cpl. Johnson entered the car, grabbed Rivers on the shoulders and instructed him firmly to stop, which Rivers did. Transportation to the police station was uneventful, except for Rivers’ continuous racist taunting of the officers. Rivers was completely uninjured during the events, made no complaint, and later pled guilty to trespassing and resisting the police charges. So it was that much more surprising that a district attorney’s office review of dashcam video of the event resulted in a grand jury indicting the senior, respected officer on misdemeanor simple assault and failure to discharge duties charges. If found guilty, a dedicated public servant who was attempting to manage a racist member of a violent street gang, faces up to six months in jail and will forfeit a quarter century of public service.
The Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund will stand with Cpl. Coley Johnson and his experienced counsel, J. Michael McGuinness. Given the events of April 4, we see this indictment of a dedicated professional who subdued, without injury, a violent member of one of the country’s most dangerous street gangs, as an obscenity. While all law enforcement officers should be accountable for their actions, those actions should be viewed in their entire context. We hope and believe no jury and no judge would find against Cpl. Johnson and we will vigorously support his defense.
UPDATE — June 2016: Coley Johnson’s case went to a bench trial before Wilmington, NC judge Ebern T. Watson. Judge Watson listened intently to the evidence in the case and declared Coley NOT GUILTY on June 10, 2016. The LELDF is delighted by the result and hopes this dedicated officer can quickly return to serving the people of his city. We congratulate Coley and his outstanding counsel, Mike McGuinness!