Prosecutors don’t charge Arizona trooper who fatally shot Dion Johnson
PHOENIX — The Arizona state trooper who fatally shot Dion Johnson in a high-profile Memorial Day incident will not face charges, metro Phoenix’s top prosecutor announced Monday.
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel revealed her highly anticipated decision during a press conference that was streamed on the department’s Facebook page.
Adel said she had final say in the decision, which came about four months after the shooting and two months after the police investigation was completed, and it was not made lightly or in haste.
“While this is a tragic outcome, criminal charges against the trooper are not warranted,” Adel said during the press conference.
Authorities have said Arizona Department of Public Safety Trooper George Cervantes shot and killed Johnson on May 25 after a struggle on the Loop 101 near Tatum Boulevard in north Phoenix.
Adel said the available evidence corroborated Cervantes’ description of the incident, and she determined the shooting was a legally valid use of self-defense. She also said the trooper didn’t get special treatment because he is a law enforcement officer.
She said the evidence included the observations of witnesses who drove past Johnson’s car, which was stopped in a gore point when Cervantes approached it.
Johnson, a 28-year-old Black man, was killed the same day George Floyd died while in police custody in Minneapolis after an officer knelt on his neck for around nine minutes.
Four police officers have been charged in Floyd’s death, which was captured on video and set off a wave of protests against police brutality and racial inequality across the nation and world.
During Phoenix-area rallies, protesters cited Johnson’s case along with those of Floyd and others killed by law enforcement officers as examples of injustice against minorities.
Cervantes told investigators a partially handcuffed Johnson had pulled part of the officer’s body into Johnson’s car through an open door. The officer said he feared he would lose control of his gun if Johnson continued to overpower him, so he shot Johnson in the torso, leading to his death.
Police reports say Johnson’s encounter with Cervantes started when the trooper saw Johnson passed out in a car that smelled of alcohol and had a handgun sitting on the seat. A toxicology report shows Johnson had methamphetamine, the synthetic opioid fentanyl and marijuana in his system.
The officer took the gun and secured it on his motorcycle and then returned to the car to arrest Johnson, who was by then seen moving around. Cervantes cuffed one of Johnson’s hands, marking the beginning of the struggle, according to the reports.
The officer said he feared that Johnson was going to push him into a lane of traffic with his legs, so he pulled out his gun and told him to stop resisting arrest or he would be shot.
Cervantes said he started to re-holster his gun when he felt the threat had lessened, but then Johnson grabbed his arm that was holding the officer’s gun.
The officer told investigators that Johnson leaned back, pulled on the trooper and used his legs as leverage to pull part of the officer’s body into the vehicle through an open door.
The trooper also said he feared Johnson would get hold of his gun if he were further drawn into the car, so he shot Johnson.
Cervantes was not equipped with a body camera when he shot Johnson. The only known video related to the incident was from after the shooting in the form of footage captured by TV network AZFamily via Arizona Department of Transportation cameras.
ADOT’s cameras stream live video of the state’s highways but don’t save the footage.
Adel said Monday she would like to see all state troopers equipped with body-worn cameras.
The Phoenix Police Department investigated the shooting and submitted its findings to Adel’s office on July 7.
Adel, a Republican, was appointed to her current role in October 2019 after former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s nomination to the Arizona Supreme Court was approved.
She will face Democratic challenger Julie Gunnigle in the November general election, with the Johnson decision likely to be a significant campaign issue.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.