December 22, 2017
Arthur Morris was just trying to have a smoke one night outside his Topeka home.
He was incredulous when three police officers arrived on his back porch.
No, he hadn’t called 911, he told them.
No, neither had his neighbors to report him yelling at his partner, Jeanie Becerra, because they hadn’t been yelling at each other.
(In fact, the Topeka police officers were there because of a 911 hangup, though they didn’t tell the couple that.)
One officer would not be deterred. He grabbed Morris, wrestled him to the ground and later landed 13 blows to his shoulder blades and arm, newly released body camera footage reveals.
“I didn’t do nothing wrong,” Morris can be heard yelling.
At other junctures, he cries: “I can’t breathe. I have asthma. … I don’t stretch that far. Please stop. … I didn’t do nothing wrong guys. You just … threw me down for trying to light my cigarette.”
The footage, released publicly by the city for the first time this month, cleared Morris’ and Becerra’s names in the September 2014 incident. They had been convicted in Topeka municipal court on charges ranging from assaulting an officer, disobeying an officer, disturbing the peace and interfering with law enforcement.
The judge vacated the sentences, and Morris was awarded a $40,000 settlement from the city of Topeka. Becerra received $10,000.
The video that exonerated them wasn’t released in time to make a difference before their trial.
After a judge had found both Morris and Becerra guilty on all counts, Luther Ganieany, a Topeka police legal advisor, raised concerns to the judge that the footage contradicted testimony given by officers. He requested that the judge reconsider the convictions.
Officers with the Topeka Police Department knew about the contents of the video in late September 2014, more than a month before the trial, Ganieany wrote in a motion.
But the department didn’t make the video available to the prosecution until just one hour before the trial “and made no indication that there was anything inconsistent with the officer’s report on the video,” Ganieany wrote.
The officers had no reasonable suspicion to confront Morris at his home, he wrote. The dispatcher had called back after the 911 hangup and the person had said there was no emergency.
Additionally, the defense didn’t receive copies of the footage before or during the trial.
The City Attorney’s Office considered it a Brady violation — a rule that compels prosecutors to give to the defense any possibly exculpatory evidence.
The prosecutor on the case was an intern with the office, Ganieany said. The intern no longer works there.
“The office did some internal training on Brady requirements … following this incident,” he added.
Morris, when reached by phone this week, declined to comment.
The beating and arrest were reviewed by the Shawnee County District Attorney, but none of the three officers on the scene faced any criminal repercussions, according to Ganieany.
Two eventually returned to normal duty.
The officer responsible for wrestling Morris to the ground and beating him later resigned from the department.
Lawrence-based attorney Max Kautsch said the wrongful arrest and convictions exemplified the importance police body camera footage has in holding officers and departments accountable.
“Public access to and awareness of such video is a mechanism to help ensure officers conduct themselves reasonably,” Kautsch said. “Law enforcement agencies should welcome the opportunity to disseminate such video to demonstrate the reasonableness of their officers.”
A recent investigation by The Star showed that Kansas has one of the most restrictive laws on police body cameras in the country. Footage is classified as an investigative record and not subject to mandatory disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act.
The Topeka Police Department has been criticized recently by some for not publicly releasing footage of a September police shooting that killed Dominique White. Ganieany and the Lawrence Police Department, which investigated the shooting, cited officer safety and the ongoing investigation as reasons for not releasing the footage.
The city of Topeka has paid more than $400,000 in settlements related to police activity since 2010, according to Ganieany.
Oftentimes, such settlements include a confidentiality agreement and are not admissions of liability. The city admitted no liability in the Morris and Becerra settlements.
“Unacceptable behavior is not tolerated going forward,” interim Police Chief Bill Cochran told the Topeka Capital-Journal, adding, “The expectations of professionalism and operating within guidelines of their duties as a police officer should be done correctly. And that if an individual acts outside of those grounds, that they’ll be dealt with with the appropriate action.”
Near the end of the body camera video from the Morris incident, Morris is led away from his home in handcuffs. He asks where they are going.
“You’re going with me,” an officer says.
“OK. Where am I going?” Morris asks a second time.
“Wherever I take you.”