Trial underway for WPD officer charged with assaulting handcuffed teen

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WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Opening statements started Tuesday morning for the Wilmington police officer accused of using excessive force when arresting a teen.

The bench trial for James Johnson will determine whether he is guilty of simple assault and failure to discharge duties. A bench trial means Judge Ebern T. Watson, will determine guilt or innocence, not a jury.

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Authorities said Johnson put his hands around Tyrell Rivers’ neck while he was in handcuffs and asked him if he wanted to die after arresting him in 2014. The 16-year-old pleaded guilty to trespassing and resisting an officer. Authorities say Johnson was charged after internal affairs reviewed his use-of-force report and dashboard camera video after the arrest.

In opening statements Tuesday morning, defense attorneys argued their client was not choking the teen but rather using a pressure point control method to subdue the suspect, something that is allowed by law enforcement. They also said Johnson has protected and served his community and kept Rivers safe by subduing him.

Johnson has been on unpaid leave since he was charged in June 2014.



After opening statements Rivers took the stand to talk about his encounter with Johnson.

Rivers testified he was walking through the Jervay housing community in Wilmington when he saw police and started running. Rivers said he was in a gang at the time and had prior legal troubles involving drugs and trespassing.

“I was nervous. I thought I had a warrant on me,” said Rivers.

He testified that police started chasing him and when he tried to jump a fence, and didn’t make it over, an officer caught him, and put his knee in his back to handcuff him.

That’s when Rivers said he got really upset and started cussing.

Video prosecutors presented in court shows officers put a handcuffed Rivers in the police car. Prosecutors said you can see Rivers start kicking the car door.

Prosecutors said then an officer, identified as Johnson, hit Rivers with a baton and grabbed him near his neck.

Rivers said Johnson choked him twice during the incident.

Rivers said he didn’t immediately report what happened because he said it happens all the time.

“They (police) put us on the ground, roughing us up and stuff,” said Rivers. “They pull up with force and aggression.”

Police said that night they found heroin and marijuana on Rivers who admitted he planned to sell the heroin.

He pleaded guilty to trespassing, and resisting arrest. The drug charges were dropped.

The trial continues Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.