LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Jeffersontown Police Department officials hope the body camera footage from an incident that has gone viral will help explain why officers got physical with a bystander livestreaming an encounter with police officers in late November.
Joseph Bennett was detained in a parking lot of a McDonald’s off Bluegrass Parkway. Jeffersontown Police Chief Rick Sanders said Bennett was approached because officers incorrectly thought he was part of multistate crime scheme, not because he was filming.
The chief said officers were also sent to a nearby bank to look for men passing bad checks.
Body camera footage shows Officer Manny Cruz first arresting one suspect in the McDonalds parking lot. Cruz is heard telling the man, “If you take your hands off that car, I’m going to slam you to the ground. I’m going to make sure you get hurt a lot.”
He later repeats the phrase, swearing.
“I just want to make you understand completely,” Cruz said. “So, when I bounce you off the ground, you can’t say I didn’t say that.”
Throughout the interaction, the suspect seems to comply calmly.
Sanders later said the man Cruz was arresting was in possession of a knife that had not been removed from him yet.
Cruz took another suspect into custody without incident not long after. The suspect had reportedly walked into bank while Cruz was already inside investigating.
Sanders said the two first arrested were homeless men picked up from a shelter in Evansville, Indiana, who were then paid to pass bad checks by the men who dropped them off. Two men from Georgia were arrested later, driving an Indiana rental car with fake checks inside.
While police were investigating in the McDonald’s Parking lot, Bennett, a bystander, was recording them. Around that time, a witness mistakenly identified Bennett as being involved. So, Cruz is seen on body camera footage moving in to detain him.
“How’s it going, sir? You got your ID?” Cruz said as he approached Bennett.
Bennett said he had identification but asked why he had to show it to the officer.
“Because you’re filming at a crime scene investigation,” Cruz said. “And, you were involved.”
Bennett said he was not involved in anything, and continued recording the situation. Cruz again asked him for ID, but Bennett refused.
Cruz then grabbed Bennett’s arm and began to attempt to detain him. Sanders said Bennett began resisting, and Cruz struck him while wrestling him to the ground.
Sanders said the incident shouldn’t be considered a violation of Bennett’s first amendment rights, even though Cruz claimed filming was reason to show ID.
“Why Manny said that, I’m not sure, because it had nothing to do with him filming and everything to do with him being a suspect in this check cashing scheme,” Sanders said.
Ultimately, Bennett was found not to have any connection to the check fraud case. Two of the charges against him, including menacing and resisting arrest, were dropped by the county attorney.
Sanders said that internal investigators are trying to determine whether Cruz followed department policy but don’t believe he committed any criminal acts.
The department has also asked the FBI to review the situation out of an abundance of caution.
Cruz is on paid leave until the administrative investigation concludes. According to the chief, any disciplinary actions will be considered then.
Sanders praised him and said the incident was out of character for Cruz and said he has saved many lives over the past month, including talking a suicidal person off train tracks near a train as it was approaching.
Sanders says the department is continuing de-escalation training for all officers.
“We could’ve done better,” he said. “Hopefully, we will do better in the future.”
It is legal to film police as a bystander in Kentucky.
Another officer on the scene, Eddie Wescott, who Sanders said Bennett identified in his livestream as being calm, has been receiving threats from people across the country because his name tag is visible in the stream. Sanders said Wescott was doing his job more as a mediator than as a physical participant in Bennett’s arrest.
The department reports having received hundreds of calls and emails from people upset about the incident.
Sanders said Cruz has expressed regret about the issues he raised for the department.
Other arrests in the check cashing scheme were made earlier that day across Kentucky.