Police Chief Walt Vasquez speaks at press conference
La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez, shadowed by signs of “Shame,” said his officers and San Diego County sheriff’s deputies shot bean-bag rounds Saturday. Photo by Chris Stone

La Mesa police Wednesday released body camera footage of the arrest of a young black man last week near the Grossmont Trolley Center, though local activists said the city’s response has been lacking and demanded the involved officer’s firing.

The body camera footage — which totals just over 10 minutes — pertains to the May 27 arrest of 23-year-old Amaurie Johnson, who La Mesa Police Department Chief Walt Vasquez said was initially contacted for smoking in public, then later arrested on suspicion of assault on an officer, and resisting, delaying and obstructing an officer.

He was released on a misdemeanor citation, Vasquez said.

In both the body camera footage and a video on social media, the officer can be seen pushing Johnson into a seated position, with both men arguing.

Many have decried the incident as an example of racial profiling, which led police protests already planned following George Floyd’s in-custody Memorial Day death in Minneapolis to take place in the East County city last weekend.

The circumstances surrounding Johnson’s arrest remain under review, as well as the Saturday shooting of 59-year-old Leslie Furcron, who was struck in the forehead with a beanbag projectile during the weekend protest outside La Mesa City Hall.

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Furcron remains hospitalized with severe injuries, including the potential loss of one of her eyes, according to her family and their attorney.

La Mesa city and police officials said Wednesday that investigations remain ongoing into both incidents by “an independent reviewer.”

The officer involved in Johnson’s arrest has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, while Vasquez said the officer involved in Furcron’s case has been identified, but the department has not released his or her name.

In an interview after the press conference with KFMB-TV, CBS8, Vasquez gave reasons for the La Mesa police response Saturday:

He said police were targeted by softball-sized rocks and bottles that were breaking a majority of the windows at the police station, “endangering the lives of personnel and endangering the officers and deputies on scene.”

He said decisions were then made (by an incident commander he didn’t name) to use less-lethal munitions — bean-bag rounds and pepper balls.

“The first deployment was actually the tear gas,” Vasquez said. “During that riot, we received two Molotov cocktails into the police station to try and burn it down…. Our intent is never, ever to injure anyone. The training and the policy states the torso. When you deploy a bean-bag round, you are aiming at the torso.”

He also said: “I don’t know how else I can express our sympathies toward what occurred (with the injury to Furcron). The fact remains that we were in a riotous situation, and they were deployed.”

City officials called an afternoon news conference to announce several items, including the release of the body camera footage and a ban on the carotid restraint technique, following similar, previous declarations by the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

Those announcements did little to placate many in attendance, including Johnson and two of Furcron’s sons, who have called for both officers’ firings and criminal charges.

After city officials abruptly left the lectern, Johnson and others held their own impromptu news conference, in which they challenged what they called a “sham press conference” organized by city officials.

“There was no accountability taken today amongst the police officers that were here, the police chief,” Johnson said.

“I also didn’t hear any apologies in regards to what happened to Leslie Furcron, no apologies in regards to what might have happened to anyone else that was hurt or harmed during this time.”

Johnson said there was no smoking paraphernalia found on him, despite that being the alleged impetus for his arrest. He said he was only waiting in the area for a friend to come pick him up.

Furcron’s sons, Ahmad Furcron and Azim Sanders, questioned why the officer who shot their mother has not been identified.

“Justice needs to be served. That officer’s name needs to be released,” Sanders said. “The camera footage needs to be released. That all needs to come to light and things need to change immediately.”

There was no immediate response to an email sent to Vasquez Wednesday night asking why the officer has not been identified.

Chief Vasquez also was asked about a Facebook group created Monday that aims to organize a “La Mesa Civil Defense” force among businesses.

“I would need to review it, get more information,” said Vasquez, who was emailed a link to the group Tuesday morning.

Councilwoman Kristine Alessio then stepped in to say: “Right now, to clear the record, I did not create any defense force program. I am a moderator on Facebook of a group that are defending with fire hoses, fire extinguishers. And I think every resident in La Mesa, every business owner, has a right to know when things are going on wrong, and have fire extinguishers.”

She added: “And if you have a problems with that, I think there’s something wrong with you.”

Updated at 11:47 p.m. June 3, 2020

— City News Service contributed to this report.