DETROIT - A bystander’s video went viral Sunday night after an off-duty Detroit police officer struck a rowdy shoplifting suspect on the side of his face during a struggle at a Meijer store in Detroit.
The video on YouTube incited a chorus of online critics alleging police brutality, but Chief James Craig said Monday the veteran officer "acted appropriately" in subduing the 23-year-old man.
Warning: YouTube video contains contains graphic content and explicit language.
In a news conference Monday afternoon, Craig said, "It appears that the force was proper" even though an investigation found no evidence that the man had shoplifted.
The incident, and the negative online buzz, prompted Craig to call for cooperation from citizens whenever a police officer stops them.
"I can understand that, if you’re stopped and you’ve done nothing wrong, you’re going to be agitated. But this officer had the right to investigate, based on the information that was coming to him. So please, I would ask everyone, cooperate with us," Craig said.
Both the officer and the suspect were black. The officer — a 39-year veteran of the department — is 65, making him 42 years older than the suspect and adding "the issue of age here," Craig said.
On the video, the officer can be seen repeatedly hitting the youth with a nightstick as the two tussled, pushing and shoving from the store's lobby to the parking lot. Seeing the scuffling turn violent, a woman can be heard on a bystander's video saying: "That officer can go to jail, hitting that boy like that."
The officer, seconds later, leans over the prostrate youth and shouts, "Don't be f---ing with me!"
The suspect, treated at a hospital for a broken tooth and a contusion at the side of his face, was in custody Monday night while police sought warrants to charge him with resisting and obstructing arrest as well as disorderly conduct, Craig said. The department is investigating whether the officer’s conduct justifies disciplinary action, he said.
Although the officer was off duty, working for the Meijer store at 8 Mile and Woodward as a paid security officer, he was in full Detroit police uniform — a common practice for officers who are moonlighting. And so "he is subject to all the rules and regulations of the Detroit Police Department and we are treating this as a Detroit police incident," Craig said.
While wrestling with the much younger man for control of his weapon, and hearing shouts from bystanders saying "they were going to get involved," the officer might have feared for his safety, the chief said.
Based on a preliminary review, "I believe the officer acted appropriately to de-escalate the situation," he said.
Detroit police declined to give the officer's name. Police gave this account of the incident:
It began about 8:30 p.m. when the shoplifting suspect became profane and verbally hostile, then wrestled the officer to the ground while a crowd of about a half-dozen watched and filmed the struggle with cell phones. Leading up to the scuffle, the officer had been told by the store’s other security staff that the man, who wore a backpack, was suspected of shoplifting the items in it.
The officer, along with other security staff, confronted the suspect. A female acquaintance of the suspect, meanwhile, showed up and claimed she had a receipt for the merchandise. She was taken elsewhere by security personnel.
The suspect and the officer were left alone in the store’s entryway, and the man became agitated and made profane, hostile remarks to the officer. The officer warned him he could be arrested for disorderly conduct, then told him turn around and be handcuffed. At that point, the man resisted and the officer struck him three times on the thigh with his baton, or nightstick, "in keeping with our training," Craig said.
The suspect grabbed the baton and used it to yank the officer through the entry doors into the parking lot, where the two fought to the ground, then got up still struggling when the office struck the man on the side of his face, police said.
Craig said that the use of a Taser-type stun gun might’ve ended the struggle with no injury to the man. "We’re in the process of getting them," Craig said.
In this era of citizen videos that go viral online, Craig said: "I’ve been very vocal about this — whenever an officer uses force, it never looks good. I just urge folks to be patient and let us fully investigate this."
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