ASHEVILLE, N.C. — A day after officials with North Carolina's top law-enforcement agency announced that the FBI was investigating the bloody beating of a black man in August by a white Asheville police officer, the county's district attorney filed criminal charges against the former policeman.
Former Officer Chris Hickman, 31, was arrested Thursday on charges of facing charges of felony assault by strangulation and misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury and communicating threats, said District Attorney Todd Williams of Buncombe County. Hickman is accused of beating, using a stun gun and choking Johnnie Rush, 33, of Asheville after Rush was stopped the night of Aug. 24 for allegedly jaywalking and trespassing through the parking lot of a business that was closed for the night.
Hickman was released on a $10,000 unsecured bond and walked out of jail at about 8:45 p.m. ET. The separate FBI investigation almost certainly will center around a potential violation of Rush's civil rights.
Body camera video that the Asheville Citizen Times obtained Feb. 28 shows Hickman punching Rush in the head while Hickman and another officer restrained Rush.
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In the video from a camera Hickman wore, Rush said multiple times while he was restrained that he could not breathe. At one point, Rush's face can be seen with what appear to be hands on his throat.
Rush also was shocked twice with a stun gun while being held on the ground.
Last week the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation said it would not investigate — state officials have declined two requests from the Asheville Police Department and Williams, the district attorney — because city police had waited five months to contact them and already had conducted a non-criminal internal investigation.
Wednesday night, the state agency said it would be assisting the FBI in a criminal investigation.
"The SBI director has discussed this with the district attorney and has declined to open a separate state investigation at this time given that the SBI is already assisting with a federal criminal investigation which will encompass most, if not all, of the issues set forth in the district attorney’s request," according to the statement from spokeswoman Patty McQuillan of the State Bureau of Investigation.
FBI agents from the Charlotte office visited Rush in January and interviewed him for more than hour, Rush told the Citizen Times in a Feb. 28 interview. Asheville is about 100 miles northwest of Charlotte, the state's largest city.
An FBI spokeswoman in Charlotte referred questions to the Justice Department in Washington. Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley declined to comment, saying the department doesn't confirm or deny investigations.
At a packed Citizen/Police Advisory Committee meeting Wednesday, Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper said firings within her department were coming and she would resign if residents demand it. She could not be reached for comment about the FBI probe but previously had been displeased that the state was not looking into the matter.
The beginning of the video from Hickman's body camera shows an officer that Hickman was training, Verino Ruggiero, approaching Rush a little after midnight Aug. 24.
Ruggiero: “You didn’t use the crosswalk four times in a row."
Rush: “All I’m trying to do is go home, man. I’m tired. I just got off of work.”
Ruggiero: “I’ve got two options, I can either arrest you or write you a ticket."
Rush: “It doesn’t matter, man. Do what you got to do besides keep harassing me.”
Hickman joins the conversation and both officers contend they are not harassing Rush, who was walking home on a street with little traffic after finishing a 13-hour shift as a dishwasher at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.
Rush curses in exasperation and runs after Hickman orders Rush to put his hands behind his back. The officers chase and tackle Rush, and Hickman's body cam shows the aftermath.
Rush was charged with second-degree trespassing, impeding traffic, assault on a government official and resisting a public officer, according to arrest records. Williams dismissed the charges Sept. 18 after reviewing the video from Hickman's body cam.
New Asheville police rules on use of force require a supervising officer to take a statement from the subject on which force was used. Sgt. Lisa Taube did not believe Rush's account even as she saw him bleeding and unsteady from the beating shortly before.
"She kind of yelled a little bit, saying, 'You're lying. You're lying. My officer is not going to do that,' " Rush said Tuesday, accusing Hickman's supervisor of saying multiple times that Rush was not telling the truth.
After further talking with Rush and asking about his level of pain that night, Taube called an ambulance, which took Rush to Mission Hospital.
Hickman, who had been awarded a department medal of honor for actions taken in 2014, resigned Jan. 5 before Hooper planned to fire him, Asheville City Manager Gary Jackson said. Hickman was told to turn in his gun and badge Aug. 25 after other police officials viewed the body cam footage.
Also on Aug. 25, Ruggiero was assigned to a different officer for training.
In addition, Hickman's supervisor that night was disciplined for not immediately forwarding information or notes or reviewing body camera footage despite being told an officer had struck Rush, Jackson said without specifically identifying Taube.
In late February, city police released a report showing a 61% decrease in the department’s overall use of force, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said earlier this month.
"However, until we recognize that one incident is too many, we have not met our goals," she said then. The mayor and City Council learned about the beating from the first Citizen Times story on the incident Feb. 28.
FBI involvement in local police activities usually has two justifications: suspicion of police extortion or an alleged civil-rights violations, according to David Shapiro, a former FBI special agent and assistant legal adviser who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
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The FBI gets involved because a civil-rights violation is a federal crime — and because sometimes federal officials are concerned about a conflict of interest on the part of local police, Shapiro said.
Williams previously has said he didn't want Asheville's police department heading the investigation into the Rush incident. Medium-sized departments like Asheville's legally can perform criminal investigations of their own officers, but some departments avoid doing so because of potential bias or the appearance of bias.
Follow Joel Burgess on Twitter: @AVLreporter
More on the Asheville incident
► March 7: FBI has opened official investigation into Asheville police beating
► March 7: Asheville police beating victim: Officer accused me of lying
► March 7: Asheville City Council wants probe into police bias after beating
► March 7: Police chief says she will quit if asked amid emotional citizens meeting
► March 7: County commissioners denounce officer's beating of accused jaywalker
► March 1: Asheville police beating of jaywalking suspect ignites furor
► March 1: Asheville mayor "outraged" over police beating of alleged jaywalker
► March 1: Asheville police respond to video of officer beating, choking man