New video shows a Mesa police officer shoving an unarmed woman on a Valley Metro bus during an incident in June, adding to a list of use-of-force cases that has brought national scrutiny onto the department.
In this latest incident, Mesa police had received a report of a woman, later identified as 32-year-old Priscilla Villaverde, who had threatened a bus driver and refused to get out of the bus, according to a police report.
The episode on June 21 came nearly two weeks after Mesa police Chief Ramon Batista held a press conference to address the string of cases. At the time, he said, “We will fix this.”
He also announced that Scottsdale police would investigate two other use-of-force cases and the change to the department’s use-of-force policy, which now prevents officers from striking people in the face, head and neck, “unless there is active aggression being exhibited by an individual toward the officer.”
Police video released Thursday shows that Officer Joseph Demarco approached Villaverde as the woman sat alone in the bus and asked her to explain what started the incident. Villaverde responds that she had already told someone else what happened, but Demarco insists that she explain it to him, the video shows.
When Demarco asks if she has an ID, the woman gets up and grabs her bags. The officer pushes her back into her seat and she ends up on the ground, the video shows. The officer then puts one of his hands into the woman’s head and grabs one of her feet.
“Sit down. I didn’t tell you to get up,” Demarco yells at Villaverde. “You don’t kick me or walk away.”
“I’m a woman,” Villaverde tells Demarco.
“I don’t care what you are, you just kicked me,” Demarco responds.
“You put your hand on my throat,” Villaverde said.
“Damn right I did, I pushed you back,” Demarco said. “Now are you going to comply?”
In his report, Demarco wrote that Villaverde told him she was going to leave.
“She then walked at me in a manner as to if I didn’t move she would push her way through me. I then gave her an impact push with my left hand to her chest, but it landed on her neck,” he wrote. “The impact push gave me the desired effect and created distance and stopped the suspects forward movement. She fell backwards and into the corner of the seat.”
He also wrote that after she kicked him, he slapped her leg away and “landed on her with all my weight to prevent another attack.”
According to court records, Villaverde — who is 5 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs about 120 pounds — was charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, and threatening and intimidating.
Those charges were dropped in Maricopa County Superior Court on July 26.
Detective Nik Rasheta, a Mesa police spokesman, said in a statement the case is under internal investigation and that the woman didn’t file a complaint. Rasheta said the officer’s push came after “Ms. Villaverde stood up and attempted to walk past the officer.”
One of the Mesa police unions defended the officer’s actions and characterized Villaverde as the aggressor.
“Ms. Villaverde threatened a bus driver and aggressively attacked a police officer responding to the call,” said the Mesa Fraternal Order of Police President Will Biascoechea. “Every call brings the potential for danger, but that’s especially true when a suspect has a history of mental illness, which can make the situation unpredictable.”
The police report does not indicate whether Villaverde had a mental-health history.
Biascoechea said that use-of-force episodes captured on video don’t show the whole picture: they lack the context that only officers can provide.
“Our goal as police is to minimize the threat of danger to public safety and sometimes that means subduing a suspect who is being violent and refuses to follow instructions as in this case,” he said. “It’s important that the public consider all facets of an incident, which might include, but shouldn’t rely entirely on, camera footage that lacks context and only gives one perspective.”
Other use of force cases
On Thursday, an 84-year-old woman filed a lawsuit against the city of Mesa, claiming two police officers used excessive force and unlawfully arrested her when they arrived at her house to do a welfare check on her grandson.
In one case, up to five officers kneed or punched 35-year-old Robert Johnson, who was unarmed, when he didn’t immediately follow orders to sit down May 23, one of the videos shows. On May 16, two officers appeared to rough up a 15-year-old armed robbery suspect after he was handcuffed, another video shows.
A third video shows 23-year-old Jose Luis Conde laying on a hospital floor in a pool of blood after he was punched by an officer and later mocked by a different officer.
As a result of the first two cases, seven officers had been placed on leave pending an internal and a criminal investigation conducted by Scottsdale police.
Also, in June, Batista, the Mesa police chief, requested the Police Executive Research Forum, a national non-profit research organization, to review his police department’s use-of-force cases for the past three years. He also asked former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley to be part of the police department internal affairs of the two first investigations.
Scottsdale police said Wednesday that they continued to investigate Johnson’s case, but the teen’s case has been completed and forwarded to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which will decide whether charges should be filed against any of the officers involved in the boy’s arrest.