On October 23 of last year, a man from El Monte was walking to his car when he noticed a friend being arrested by the Fullerton police. Concerned that the officers might be mistreating his friend, he pulled out his cell phone – which was equipped with a video camera — and started recording. That decision began an ugly series of events that ended with the concerned citizen being accused of physically attacking and choking an officer.

On July 7, a jury acquitted the El Monte man of assault, battery and resisting arrest. With the July 5 death of a 37-year-old homeless man after an encounter with Fullerton police fresh in mind, the El Monte man’s case was added to the internal investigation ordered after the embattled chief of police left on medical leave.

“Based upon reviews of the video, it is [the investigator’s] preliminary determination that we arrested the wrong guy that night,” announced a spokesperson for the Fullerton PD this week.

Police department insists there is an innocent explanation for the wrongful arrest

As shown on the cell phone video, when the El Monte man began to record the arrest of his friend, one Fullerton PD officer knocked the phone out of his hand and then wrestled him to the ground. Another onlooker picked up the fallen cell phone and continued recording.

A crowd had gathered. At one point, apparently, someone jumped onto the back of one of the officers and began to choke him. Another officer pulled the man off of the first officer’s back and pushed him away. When the El Monte man allegedly continued to bother the officers, they arrested him for assault, accusing him of being the person who attacked and choked the officer.

The officers stuck by their version of events in their police reports and at trial. They say they did not lie — someone did jump on an officers back — and they sincerely if erroneously believed it was the concerned citizen from El Monte. Although the actual attacker can be seen wearing a Pendleton-style shirt (the El Monte man was not), police say they were confused and stressed by the crowd.

“It was a very chaotic scene that night,” said a police spokesperson.

The spokesperson contended the police did not knock the concerned citizen’s cell phone to the ground because they didn’t want to be filmed, but because the crowd had already grown large and they were trying to push everyone back from the scene. No specifics were given as to why, if they were not upset at being recorded, they then wrestled the man to the ground.

The El Monte man’s criminal defense attorney doesn’t believe the officers’ actions were the result of confusion, chaos and an entirely innocent mistake.

“It contradicted the police reports and testimony of the officers in every way,” he said of his client’s cell phone footage. “The video proved what they said wasn’t true.”

It is not illegal to record police officers in an effort to document or prevent mistreatment. It certainly does not warrant being thrown to the ground, arrested, and accused of a serious violent crime when even a cursory review of the evidence would show you were not guilty.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Fullerton police review video, acknowledge arresting wrong man,” Richard Winton, Aug. 18, 2011