An El Cajon jury acquitted a former La Mesa police officer of charges that he filed a false report after a controversial arrest of a young Black man in 2020. The jury deliberated only one day before returning with the not-guilty verdict on Friday, Dec. 10.
While the ex-cop’s lawyers say that he is feeling relief, the San Diego NAACP is feeling something completely different: “disappointment.”
The civil rights organization released a statement on its website expressing displeasure over the verdict.
It read in part, “The NAACP San Diego Branch is disappointed with the not guilty verdict returned by the jury in the case of former La Mesa police officer Matthew Dages. The Branch believes there was more than enough evidence to convict this former police officer. The justice system failed in this case.”
Signed by the chapter’s First Vice President Brian Bonner, the note focused on the viral video that showed Dages harassing Amaurie Johnson while he waited for his friends in front of their apartment building.
“After a video of a violent arrest of a young black male by a La Mesa police officer became public, public protests, a review by the La Mesa Police Department and the San Diego County district attorney led to charges against former officer Matthew Dages for lying on his arrest report,” the statement continued.
The organization also maintains that the “lack of diversity” of the jury played a major part in the outcome of the case, “In spite of the strong evidence presented by the District Attorney, this jury, which as we previously noted lacked diversity and perhaps even interest in the case, returned a not guilty verdict. While we respect and have confidence in the jury system as a whole, the NAACP San Diego branch strongly disagrees with this not guilty verdict. This case demonstrates that the fight for justice must continue.”
The NAACP isn’t the only organization that takes issue with the decision.
Yusef Miller of the Racial Justice Coalition, balked at the acquittal. “It’s obvious that this man [Johnson] — innocent of any crime, any violation — was targeted, and that’s what started this thing snowballing out of control,” said Miller.
On May 27, 2020, the then 23-year-old Johnson was approached by Dages, who was serving on a “fare compliance operation” for the department.
Though the assignment required him to check to see if people had the correct fare to ride the trolley, he approached the young man who was across the street from the Grossmont Transit Center in front of the apartments.
The officer accused Johnson of smoking, even though he was not. He was talking on his cell phone. Police reports would later confirm that Johnson had no “smoking paraphernalia” on his person and that Dages was mistaken. The incident, captured by several cameras, escalated quickly, eventually leading to Johnson being arrested.
Johnson was not charged for smoking in a “no-smoking” zone. He was arrested for assaulting an officer and resisting arrest.
Though smoking was why Dages initially approached Johnson, in his police report, he failed to mention that at all. He was later fired for misrepresenting the facts of the arrest. The now-retired Police Chief Walt Vasquez who terminated Dages says that his report of the incident reflected racial bias and that he believed the officer profiled Johnson because he was Black.
Misrepresenting the facts in a report as an officer is a crime under the CA Penal Code § 118.1 and Dages faced up to three years in prison had he been convicted. His acquittal freed him from this possibility.
“I think our client is relieved,” Dages’ attorney Joshua Visco shared. “It’s been a very, very long journey for him, and his family and his supporters — of which he has a lot.”
Visco further stated that he believed that his client was a victim of a “political prosecution,” Fox 5 reports.
He stated, “A ‘not guilty’ verdict shows that the DA should have never prosecuted this case in the first place.”
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan disagrees, standing firm on the American principle of due process.
“While I respect the jury’s verdict, I remain proud that my team courageously fought for justice without prejudice against or favor towards anyone,” he said in a statement. “The integrity of our criminal justice system depends on police officers filing truthful police reports and our thorough review of the facts and evidence led us to bring the charge and present the case to the jury.”
He concluded, “The community can take comfort in knowing that the vast majority of police officers in our county serve with honor and uphold the law while doing the difficult job of keeping our communities safe.”
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