‘I can’t breathe’: Body cameras show brutal beating of black man accused of jaywalking

Police in North Carolina on Monday released nine body camera videos that show in detail an August incident that left a black man beaten, bloody and bruised and a white police officer facing criminal charges.

Johnnie Jermaine Rush, 33, was walking home from a 13-hour shift at an Asheville Cracker Barrel restaurant just before 4 a.m. Aug. 25 when he encountered former officer Christopher Hickman and an officer in training, Verino Ruggiero. That encounter ended with Rush beaten, stunned with a stun gun and choked from behind.

Hickman, who was placed on administrative leave the day after the incident, resigned in January as the city was preparing to fire him, according to the Asheville Citizen Times. He has since been charged with felony assault by strangulation, misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury and communicating threats.

Ruggiero did not face disciplinary action, but a supervisor who responded to the scene, Sgt. Lisa Taube, was disciplined for poor performance and ordered to undergo remedial training, the Asheville Police Department's website said.

Taube’s own body camera footage shows Rush after the incident, telling her he wants to press charges against Hickman.

“What would have happened if he had killed me? Then what?” Rush asks her.

Credit: (Asheville Police Department)

Credit: (Asheville Police Department)

Taube pauses. “OK. You were in the wrong,” she says. “You were told by an officer you were under arrest. You resist and do not comply and run away.”

Rush stops looking at Taube as she continues telling him what he did wrong.

“You’re just going by what your officer tells you,” Rush responds. “There’s two sides to every story.”

“There are,” Taube tells him. “And thankfully, I’ve got body-worn video cameras to watch it afterwards.”

“You right, yes,” Rush says.

Click here to see all of the videos released by the Asheville Police Department. Warning: Some of the videos contain violence and explicit language that may not be suitable for all readers. 

The videos released by police officials Monday tell the story from multiple angles.

The incident began when Hickman and Ruggiero spotted Rush walking through the parking lot of a business. The officers said they saw Rush cross a street outside of a crosswalk as he went to a nearby convenience store for beer.

The first video released Monday, taken from Hickman's body camera, shows the officers waiting outside the store for Rush. A viewing guide published on the police department's website states that Ruggiero first approached Rush outside the store about jaywalking, though that encounter is not shown.

As a trainee, Ruggiero was not wearing a body camera that morning.

The second video is the footage from Hickman's body camera that shows the violent confrontation between the officers and Rush. A portion of that footage was first obtained and published online by the Citizen Times in February.

In that video, Hickman and Ruggiero start out in their patrol car, from which they say they see Rush jaywalking “again and again,” though Rush is not seen on camera.

“He’s not learning. Right after you just told him,” Hickman says. “He’s gonna be so annoyed with you.”

The officers pull up to Rush and Ruggiero exits the car, followed by Hickman.

“Rush, Rush,” Ruggiero says. “I just told you.”

Rush, frustrated, starts to argue with the officer.

“I’m tired. I just got off of work,” he says.

As he continues to argue with Ruggiero, Rush says he hasn’t done anything wrong.

“You just committed four crimes in a row. Just because you don’t agree it’s a crime doesn’t mean it’s not a crime,” Ruggiero says.

The rookie officer tells Rush that he was polite with him when he asked him earlier to use the crosswalk.

“You think I’m a punk. Guess what, I’m not,” Ruggiero says. “I don’t think you’re a punk, either.

As both officers continue to lecture him, Rush’s frustration appears to heighten.

“All I’m trying to do is go home, man,” Rush says. “I’m tired. I just got off of work.”

Warning: The video below contains violence and explicit language that may not be suitable for all readers.

Ruggiero says he has two options, to arrest Rush or write him a ticket.

After a pause, Rush says it doesn’t matter.

“Do what you got to do besides keep harassing me, man,” Rush says.

“I’m not harassing you,” Ruggiero says.

“Yes, you are!” Rush responds.

“That’s all in your mind, man,” Hickman chimes in.

“I asked you to use the crosswalk. Why is that so hard?” Ruggiero says.

“You’re right. It’s not, sir,” Rush says. “It’s not. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You’re right.”

Hickman tells Ruggiero to write Rush a ticket, saying the man wants to “act like a punk.”

When Rush says the officers have nothing better to do than harass people about “(expletive) walking,” Hickman springs toward him, telling him to put his hands behind his back.

“Sir, look. Sir, look,” Rush says in a panic, starting to back away. He initially starts to run, but stops after crossing the street.

Hickman, running after him, begins calling in Rush’s description on his police radio.

“Black male, white tank top, thinks it’s funny,” Hickman says. “You know what’s funny is you’re gonna be (expletive) up hardcore.”

He orders Rush to the ground, pressing the man’s face into the asphalt. He and Ruggiero repeatedly order Rush to put his hands behind his back as Rush cries out in pain.

Rush begins yelling, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

Hickman begins punching Rush.

“Oh my God!” Rush mumbles breathlessly. “I can’t breathe.”

As he keeps complaining that he can’t breathe, Hickman punches him several more times in the head.

Rush took a photo, seen below, following the beating that showed the extent of his injuries.

Hickman then uses his stun gun on Rush, who screams in pain. Ruggiero can be heard ordering him to put his hands behind his back and Rush responds repeatedly, “I can’t, I can’t.”

Rush eventually ends up in a sitting position as Hickman, Ruggiero and Officer Luis Delgado, who arrived as Rush was being stunned, try to handcuff him.

Delgado’s body camera footage shows Hickman choking Rush, first with his hands, then with his arms from behind, as Rush screams for help. By this point, Rush’s voice has taken on a gurgling sound.

Warning: The video below contains violence and explicit language that may not be suitable for all readers.

Once he is handcuffed, Hickman’s camera shows the officer leaning against a patrol car, breathing heavily. He calls for emergency medical services at the scene for Rush.

“His face. Tasing,” Hickman responds when asked where the suspect is injured. “Just get EMS.”

As Rush and the officers wait, Ruggiero tells Rush, “All this? Over you getting a ticket? Now it’s serious, bro.”

A few moments later, Rush, who is lying on his side with his hands cuffed behind his back asks, “Can y’all please sit me up?”

“It’s a please now, is it?” Hickman says, crouching down next to him. “After all that, it’s a please now? After all that?”

“It’s a ticket, and you want to act like this? What’s wrong with you?” he yells at Rush’s prone figure. “What the (expletive) is wrong with you?”

He tells Rush that he didn’t know what his problem was, or if he had a weapon.

“Man, man, stop yelling at me,” Rush says from the ground.

“Well get up, put you in a car, tough boy,” Hickman says. “Do anything stupid, you’re gonna get hurt further.”

As he is escorted to a patrol car across the street, Rush, whose face can be seen swelling up, says, “You ain’t have to punch me in my face for no reason.”

“You didn’t have to make me,” Hickman says. “Stop. Stop.”

“I’m not doing nothing!” Rush says. “Oh my God.”

“You’re pushing against me, you’re doing something,” Hickman responds.

A moment later, officers prepare to put Rush in the patrol car. First, they remove the stun gun probes from his body.

“Don’t look at me with your spitty blood face,” Hickman tells him.

Once Rush is in the car, Hickman complains to other officers that he has blood all over him from Rush’s face. He also calls Rush several expletives.

Toward the end of the nearly nine-minute long video from Hickman’s body camera, Hickman is seen telling Taube what happened. He claims that when Rush ran from him and Ruggiero, Rush was laughing and cursing them.

“Ran, laughing, saying ‘(expletive) you, can’t wait until you catch me,’” Hickman quotes Rush as saying. “So we caught him.”

Anything Rush said as he ran from the officers could not be heard on the Hickman recording.

Credit: (Asheville Police Department)

Credit: (Asheville Police Department)

The officer also tells Taube that Rush tried to grab the stun gun away from him, though that could not be seen in the footage. He described striking Rush in the head with the weapon.

“I beat the (expletive) out of his head. I’m not gonna lie about that,” Hickman says.

He told Taube the stun gun was not effective on Rush until he punched him with it.

“I hit him in the face as if it was a club. Three times,” Hickman says. “That was effective. That’s what happened to his left side. I punched him in the face with it, about as hard as I could. That’s why his eye looks like that.”

The majority of the other videos released Monday came from cameras worn by officers who responded as Rush was being walked to Hickman’s patrol car, including Taube. The final video, however, came from Hickman’s body camera and showed interaction between him, Rush and Ruggiero in the parking lot of Mission Hospital, where Rush was taken for treatment of his injuries.

The officers are preparing to take Rush, whose head looks misshapen with swelling, to jail.

Credit: (Ashville Police Department)

Credit: (Ashville Police Department)

“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Rush tells Hickman in the video.

“We didn’t, either,” Hickman responds. “He warned you once, then he was just gonna give you a ticket the second time.”

“What’s done is done. We’re all gonna go on with our lives and this will never happen again and we’ll probably never even see each other again.”

“If we do, I hope it’ll be on a better note,” Rush responds as he smokes a cigarette provided to him by the officers.

The conversation continues with Hickman explaining Rush’s charges and the officers’ reasons for stopping him. Rush says he ran from the officers because he “didn’t know what they were about to do.”

Hickman tells him he knew he was going to jail.

“No disrespecting with you, sir, I understand that I ran and whatnot, but you didn’t really have to keep punching me and choking me,” Rush says.

“Yeah, I did,” Hickman replies.

Rush asks why.

“Because you never complied with my orders,” Hickman says. “You didn’t put your hands behind your back.”

“How, when you’re choking me? How can I?” Rush asks.

“I didn’t start choking you until I probably punched you 10 times,” Hickman says.

Warning: The video below may contain explicit language that may not be suitable for all readers.

The officers took Rush to jail, where he was booked on charges of assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, obstructing an officer, trespassing and traffic offenses. All charges against him were dropped in September, the Citizen Times reported.

Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper, along with the City Council and Cathy Ball, the interim city manager, issued a joint statement Monday on the release of the footage, in which they called the videos "disturbing, difficult to watch" and not appropriate for all ages. Ball was named interim manager following public outrage about Rush's beating and the dismissal of former city manager Gary Jackson.

The city leaders said Monday that they petitioned Buncombe County Superior Court to release the videos in the interest of transparency and accountability.

"This incident has created a loss of trust within the community, particularly among people of color," the statement read. "The City of Asheville understands that there is substantial work to do to restore the public's trust. We have heard your concerns and feedback and we are committed to moving forward with the help of the community. We are encouraged by the community's support as we implement changes towards this goal.

“We are dedicated to being leaders who will create a culture where all people are treated with dignity and respect, and will hold accountable any employee who does not conduct themselves in this manner.”