Choice Johnson Latest Cop to Have Excessive-Force Punishment Rescinded

Update: In April, we told you about the suspension of Officer Cholce Johnson for shoving a man down some stairs — an act caught on video. See our previous coverage below.

Now, appeal hearing officer Terry Tomsick has determined that the thirty day suspension Johnson received for his actions was unjust and he should get back pay for the time he was ordered off the job.

This is the second time in a matter of weeks that Tomsick has ruled against the City of Denver when it comes to punishment against law enforcers for an alleged act of excessive force. On August 3, we reported that Tomsick ordered that Officer James Medina be rehired. Medina had been sacked after video showed him allegedly causing a female prisoner to pass out after restricting her breathing with his knee.

The original discipline for Medina consisted of consecutive thirty-day suspensions and a two-year probationary order, but Department of Public Safety Deputy Director Jess Vigil subsequently determined that his actions were such that he should be fired. However, as we reported, Tomsick determined that the switch from wrist-slap to termination violated Medina's rights. For that reason, he imposed the original penalty of consecutive thirty-day suspensions.

Tomsick's rationale this time? Vigil improperly applied the standard for deadly force incidents to something that didn't rise to that level.

We noted in our original post that the incident took place on July 26 outside the 1Up arcade bar and restaurant in LoDo. Around 11:30 p.m. that night, Brandon Schreiber, 29, got upset at Officer Johnson, working an off-duty gig, for putting handcuffs on his brother, the guest of honor for a bachelor party, who'd overindulged that evening.

Amid a conversation in which Schreiber tried to talk the officer into releasing his brother, Johnson gave him a two-handed shove down some stairs. Prior to this happening, Johnson said Schreiber had "pushed his chest out in a defensive manner," but the video showed that he'd been standing with his hands in his pockets.

The report issued by Tomsick, included below, adds some colorful dialogue from the exchange, including a couple of quotes attributed to Schreiber.

The first one: "You are a fucking piece of shit. This is bullshit, you Denver cops are always in trouble, you don't want to listen to anyone."

The second one: "You are an asshole, fuck you, you are not taking my brother." 

More to the point, Tomsick simply doesn't buy Schreiber's version of events. An excerpt from the report:
The only way that Brandon Schreiber's version of events could be believed would be if one discounts entirely three independent witnesses, one sober officer, one sober sergeant, all of whom were there and were eyewitnesses, and believes Brandon Schreiber's (who was admittedly intoxicated and abusive) account of random police violence coming out of nowhere. One would also have to believe that not only did Officer Johnson push Brandon Schreiber over, but he also beat and choked him. One would also have to believe that Officer Johnson also threw Matthew Schreiber around and abused him. Finally, one would have to believe that the scene was devoid of any other witnesses which is obviously counterfactual given the number of persons milling around the 1Up Bar and persons on the stairs videotaping Brandon as he landed on his buttocks and scuffled with Officer Johnson. Had anything gone down that appeared inappropriate, it is more likely than not that 911 would have been flooded with calls complaining about police brutality. Instead, the crowd seemed to be happy that Brandon was being removed, according to the Manager of the 1Up Bar. 
Additionally, Tomsick believes Vigil "applied a deadly force standard to the use of non-deadly force and applied 20/20 hindsight, which is a policy consideration of considerable importance and is clearly erroneous." Hence, he ruled that "the Order of Discipline is not sustained. Officer Johnson shall be made whole by restoring the thirty (30) day’s suspension."

Schreiber's attorney, Siddhartha Rathod, was aghast at this determination. He told 7News that Johnson had racked up "eighteen prior complaints of excessive force." And a separate station report noted that the officer had previously been accused of using excessive force while working in an off-duty capacity — and "has been disciplined at least twice for using force against people and failing to report it to his supervisors."

As such, Rathod is promising to file a lawsuit against Johnson on his client's behalf — and the City of Denver is appealing Tomsick's latest finding to the full Civil Service Commission.

Look below to see the aforementioned 7News piece on the latest development, followed by Tomsick's decision and our previous coverage.

Choice Johnson Decision

Original post, 6 a.m. April 15: Over the years, plenty of video has surfaced capturing what appears to be excessive force on the part of Denver police officers.

Examples include the 2009 pummeling of Michael Herrera and an August 2014 incident during which a man was repeatedly punched and a pregnant woman was tripped.

The latest incident: a clip showing veteran Denver police officer Choice Johnson shoving an apparently passive LoDo patron down some stairs.

The act has earned Johnson a thirty-day suspension.

The incident took place this past July 26 outside 1Up, a popular arcade, bar and restaurant located at 1925 Blake Street.

According to 7News, which has the scoop on the story, Brandon Schreiber, 29, was celebrating the bachelor party of his brother at the venue.

By 11:30 p.m. that evening, Schreiber's brother was asleep at the bar, having apparently overindulged, and as a couple of security guards were in the process of escorting him outside, a report accessed by the station says the man "verbally challenged" one of the bouncers.

At that point, Officer Johnson, an eleven-year veteran of the DPD who was working an off-duty gig at 1Up, took control of the situation, cuffing Schreiber's brother and calling for a vehicle that would carry him to detox.

Outside, Schrieber tried to talk Johnson into releasing his brother in a conversation that ended with the officer knocking Schrieber backward down some stairs with a two-handed shove.

In his report about the incident, Johnson claimed that Schrieber had taken "a fighting posture, 'pushed his chest out in a defensive manner' and told him 'Don't put your hands on me,'" 7News points out, quoting the report.

However, the footage clearly demonstrates that Schreiber was standing in place with his hands in his pockets at the time he was sent flying.

Statements from the disciplinary order against Johnson include: "He makes no threatening gestures or movements toward Officer Johnson.... The video does not support Officer Johnson’s claim that (Schreiber) ‘pushed his chest out in a defensive manner."

Schreiber was arrested after hitting the deck and charged with resisting police and interfering with a police officer. But those charges were dropped, and Schreiber has contacted an attorney who advised him not to comment for the 7News story.

As for Johnson, his thirty-day suspension begins on April 19.

Johnson's career with the DPD has seen highs and lows. 7News notes that he's received sixteen commendations, but been the recipient of six prior disciplinary actions.

He's also been named in at least two lawsuits: one under the auspices of the ACLU that cites abuses related to mistaken-identity arrests, the other involving a claim of excessive force pushed by a plaintiff named Elroy Lee. An excerpt from the Lee case document reads, "When Mr. Lee turned to follow Officer Johnson “commanded ‘no’ and violently grabbed Mr. Lee’s shoulder, twisted his body around, and grabbed his hand, intentionally bending his fingers so far back that the tips of his fingers nearly touched the top of his hand."

The Lee matter was subsequently dismissed.

Look below to see the aforementioned court papers following the 7News report.

Fourhorn et. al. v. Choice Johnson et. al.

Elroy Lee v. City and County of Denver

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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