The Fresno Police Department is on the defensive after a bodycam video showing an officer punching a teenager was leaked to the public.
The video shows an event in late January in which officers are arresting a group of people at an apartment complex near downtown Fresno. After being patted down, a young man appears to calmly turn around to find a place to sit. Within seconds, however, an officer grabs the man by the arm, pushes him against a wall, and repeatedly punches him. Minutes later, the man is handcuffed and on the ground. Droplets of blood appear on his face and on the white tile next to him.
The video provoked strong reactions from social media users as well as Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias. In a statement released Wednesday, Arias said he was “disgusted and disappointed at how this situation has been handled,” and that it “clearly shows why the City needs to review its ‘use of force’ training, practice and policies.”
Now, the young man, 17-year-old London Wallace, is suing the officer, Christopher Martinez, as well as the police department and 26 others for excessive use of force, claiming Martinez broke Wallace’s nose and caused emotional distress. At the time, Wallace was arrested for resisting arrest, but police ultimately dropped the charge. Wallace and his lawyers filed the lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court in late July.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Police Chief Jerry Dyer explained that the officers, all part of a multi-agency gang-focused unit known as MAGEC, had gathered at the apartment complex near E. McKenzie Ave. and N. Calaveras St. due to suspected gang activity and the reported presence of guns. The incident with Wallace occurred as police were emptying an apartment in order to search it. Dyer said officers ultimately found no firearms, but they did arrest three others for violating probation and parole.
Dyer said he first saw the bodycam video on Tuesday, the day that ABC30 first broke the story. “The video I have reviewed certainly raises concerns and questions for me as police chief,” he said. Simultaneously, he cautioned that one video doesn’t represent the full narrative, pointing out that it’s difficult to determine exactly what happened during Wallace and Martinez’s scuffle. “We do know that a struggle ensued,” he said. “We also know the officer swung his fist at the individual several times. It’s difficult to know how many strikes actually made contact with the individual, but we do know that he was struck at least once with one of those blows.”
Although the footage was not brought to his attention at the time, Dyer said his department did conduct a use of force investigation shortly after the incident. “However, there was no video that was reviewed at that time,” he said. He believes the video was leaked by a public defender or by Baradat & Paboojian, the law firm representing Wallace.
Dyer said the incident is currently under review as part of an internal affairs investigation, which was sparked by a complaint filed by one of Wallace’s family members in May. Because so many officers were present for the incident, Dyer said investigators are reviewing at least 40 bodycam videos. He said officers will also be speaking with witnesses from the original incident.
When asked about the potential outcome of the investigation and disciplinary consequences for Christopher Martinez, Dyer refused to speculate, instead repeating that the investigation would be “thorough and comprehensive.”
“I am asking that people reserve final judgement until the entire investigation is complete and findings are rendered,” he said.
In the meantime, Dyer said that Martinez had been placed on “modified duty,” relegated to office-related tasks until the investigation is over. Because Martinez’s name and face had been shared with the public, Dyer reasoned that allowing the officer to remain on patrol could put him in harm’s way. “There’s a number of reasons I do not want that officer to be placed in an environment where there could be concerns out there in the public raised to him,” Dyer said.