CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is defending the actions of four officers caught on camera punching and elbowing an unarmed suspect in the head during an arrest.
The incident took place on March 26, 2016. It started when officers stopped a car they said was wanted in connection with a string of larcenies. James Yarborough, a passenger in the car, ran from police.
Eventually, officers caught up with Yarborough after a foot chase. Once on the ground, officers struggled with Yarborough for roughly four minutes before putting him in handcuffs.
It's what happened during the four-minute-long struggle that Yarborough said should be considered excessive force.
The entire incident—starting with the traffic stop and concluding after Yarborough was loaded into an ambulance—was caught on body cameras worn by two CMPD officers.
Decision to run
In hindsight, James Yarborough realizes he shouldn't have run from police after they stopped the car in which he was a passenger.
Yarborough said he was in the car getting a ride back to his truck that had run out of gas when police stopped the vehicle.
Yarborough, who has multiple federal convictions for illegally possessing firearms, said the man giving him a ride back to his truck tried to sell him a pistol. When police stopped the car, Yarborough said, he decided it would be better to run away from the pistol than get charged with having a gun.
That's a decision he now wishes he had made differently.
"The only thing I did wrong that day was run. That is the only thing I did wrong that day," Yarborough told WBTV. "I regret running."
The video captured by the first officer starts with the traffic stop. It shows Yarborough starting to run and the officer chases after him. Both men are on foot.
Several minutes into the chase, the video shows the first officer chasing Yarborough fall down in pain, apparently injured somehow during the foot chase.
A second officer's body camera picks up the pursuit, showing the moments when Yarborough is captured and brought to the ground before the four-minute-long struggle ensues.
"I will kill you"
The second officer's body camera video shows Yarborough on the ground for 17 seconds before an officer pulls out his pistol and presses it to Yarborough's temple on the left side of his head.
"Don't [expletive] resist," one officer says to Yarborough seconds before the weapon appears in the video.
Once the gun is pressed to Yarborough's head, an officer is heard saying "I will kill you, you understand? Give me your hand, now!"
Yarborough said he thought, in that moment, he may die.
"That moment felt like—it felt like it might have been my last day," Yarborough said.
The gun only appears in the video for roughly ten seconds before the officers puts it away and calls for another officer to use a Taser to shock Yarborough.
"Light him up, he don't want to do it," an officer is heard saying of Yarborough refusing to put his hands behind his back.
At that point in the video—roughly 37 seconds after Yarborough had been brought to the ground—he is laying on the ground with both arms extended in front of him with what appear to be several officers on top of him.
That's when you hear an officer say "light him up!" and then, about ten seconds later, the sound of a Taser.
"I knew it was over. I just knew it was over," Yarborough said of that moment as he watched the video with a WBTV reporter.
Yarborough is on the ground, with four police officers on top of him, for roughly four minutes and 20 seconds before he is handcuffed.
After officers use the Taser, video of the incident shows officers repeatedly striking him in the back, neck and head.
Eventually, the officer who had fallen down during the foot pursuit catches back up to the group of officers trying to arrest Yarborough. During the struggle, officers repeatedly tell Yarborough to put his hands behind his back and Yarborough says he can't.
Video and audio captured by his body camera shows him telling the four officers on top of Yarborough to get off of him so he can put his hands behind his back.
"Guys, Dunham, you have to come up so he can get it back there," the officer standing over the group says. "He's not going anywhere."
Shortly after that, the officer directly on top of Yarborough gets off of him, Yarborough puts his hands behind his back and the struggle ends.
Report offers different version of events
WBTV obtained a copy of the internal CMPD reports written by the officers involved in Yarborough's arrest.
The reports identify Officer Jon Dunham as the officer who pressed his pistol to Yarborough's head and threatened to kill him.
But Dunham's report provides a different recounting of his actions at the beginning of the struggle with Yarborough.
"At this point I observed him shove his hand towards his waistband. He was completely uncooperative' I believed he was reaching for a gun in an attempt to seriously hurt me or Officer Michaels; knowing that suspects are known to frequently place guns in the front if (sic) their waistbands, I drew my pistol and threatened to shoot him," Dunham wrote.
Dunham's narrative made no mention of the gun pressed to Yarborough's temple nor his threat to "kill" Yarborough.
Video of the moments surrounding Dunham's decision to draw his pistol also show Yarborough's hands in front of him, not under his waistband as Dunham claims in his report.
Later in his report, Dunham said he punched Yarborough in the face a total of six times—three on the right side of his face and three times on the left side of his face.
When that didn't work, Dunham wrote, he drove his elbow into Yarborough.
"…I struck Yarborough with my right elbow in a 'dropping' elbow style strike. The first elbow strike was aimed for the mid scapula region but Yarborough moved and I accidentally grazed his head," the officer wrote.
Dunham wrote that he sprained his hand as a result of hitting Yarborough so many times during the struggle to arrest him.
Many disturbing impressions
WBTV played the two videos of James Yarborough's arrest for Charlotte attorney Jake Sussman, who specializes in representing clients in lawsuits involving claims of excessive force by police.
"(I have) many disturbing impressions," Sussman said immediately after watching the videos. "You've got three to four fully grown men driving this person into the earth, beating on him with elbows and fists, sticking a gun against his temple and threatening to kill him."
Sussman said the video showed all the features of excessive force.
In addition to the video of the incident, WBTV showed Sussman the internal CMPD reports written up of the incident.
Based on what's shown in the video and available in the internal police documents obtained by WBTV, Sussman said it appeared Yarborough would have a solid legal argument that the officers who arrested him used excessive force.
"I think if you show that to 12 people on the street, they would certainly think that there was a problem. There certainly seems like that was an unreasonable use of force," Sussman said.
CMPD found no wrongdoing
An investigation conducted by CMPD's Internal Affairs Division found no wrongdoing on the part of the officers who arrested Yarborough, including the officer who pressed his pistol to Yarborough's head and threatened to kill him.
"When you look completely at the totality of the circumstances, you have to ask yourself 'was that reasonable in that situation?' and, based on everything, it was reasonable," CMPD Major Stella Patterson said of the incident.
Patterson leads the department's Internal Affairs Division.
She defended Dunham's use of his pistol, including the fact that he pressed his service weapon to Yarborough's head.
"The officer reasonably believed that he had a weapon on him," she said.
Personnel records provided by CMPD show no officer was disciplined as a result of the incident. Officer Dunham, who pressed the gun to Yarborough's head and threatened to kill him, left the department a month after the incident, records show.
Dunham is now a corporal with the Town of Davidson Police Department.
Davidson Police Chief Jeanne Miller declined multiple requests for an interview and did not provide a statement to WBTV in response to a request for comment.
But in a phone conversation with a reporter, Miller said her department was unaware of Dunham's behavior during Yarborough's arrest and said she and department were looking further into it.
WBTV also requested an interview with Officer Dunham through a Town of Davidson spokeswoman. That request never received a response.
Looking for justice
For his part, Yarborough said chose to speak out about the incident because he feels he has been denied justice for what happened to him.
Police charged Yarborough with misdemeanor resisting a public officer, assault on an officer inflicting serious injury and felony felon in possession of a firearm. All three charges were dismissed by prosecutors, court records show, due to lack of evidence.
Yarborough said he tried to complain about the incident to CMPD commanders but was turned away each time.
Yarborough was not able to appeal the findings of the internal affairs investigation to the Citizens Review Board because he never received written notice of the investigation's findings. Such a notice is required by policy.
Yarborough said the incident has left him scarred.
"That's a heck of a beating, man. You know, that's a real life beating," he said. "Even now I sweat in my sleep. I wake up looking out the window because I'm like 'they're coming to get me again.'"