‘The most horrific thing’: Family of Dion Johnson reacts to video of him dying

By: - June 4, 2020 1:12 am

Kenya Collins, a Laveen resident, wears a shirt calling for justice in the case of Dion Johnson during a rally in downtown Phoenix on May 31, 2020. Johnson was killed on May 25, the same day as George Floyd in Minnesota, after a state trooper shot him on a north Phoenix highway. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Thousands of people have yelled his name on the streets of Phoenix, signed on to a petition calling for #JusticeforDion and repeated his name at Wednesday’s Phoenix City Council meeting.

Dion Johnson was 28. A protector, a comedian, a passionate family man, said his sister, Camille Landrum. He had the biggest heart, said his aunt, Donna Hall. 

Johnson died after an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper found him sleeping in his car on the side of a north Phoenix highway just after sunrise on May 25, and shot him.

“I’m devastated,” Erma Johnson, his mother, said at a press conference Wednesday evening. She spoke in the lobby of an office building in central Phoenix, with her son’s aunt, sister, brother and cousin standing behind her. The family’s attorney, Jocquese Blackwell, was by her side. 

Earlier in the day, Erma and the family saw video footage of Johnson’s death on the Loop 101 and Tatum Boulevard, Blackwell said. The video starts after the shooting. It shows Johnson with his hands cuffed behind his back, lying on the ground next to his car, shot, and trying to get up, Blackwell said. A DPS trooper kicks him in the back, he said. 

An ambulance and Phoenix Fire Department vehicle are parked nearby. No medical aid is given to Johnson for six minutes, Blackwell said.

“This is the most horrific thing I’ve seen as a mother to have a human being treated like that,” Erma said. “Why? Why? Why would you do this to my son? Why couldn’t you administer some kind of medical aid for him? He could’ve been alive to this day, but they held everybody back, so he could obviously lay down on the ground and die.”

The Phoenix Police Department is investigating the fatal shooting, which they said resulted from a struggle between the trooper and Johnson. The trooper who killed Johnson has not been identified, but he is a 54-year-old trooper with 15 years of service, according to police.

The family is demanding the name of the trooper be released, and that he be prosecuted for what they believe is an unjust death.

“How does a person who’s asleep get shot and killed by this DPS officer?” Blackwell said. “Why do we have to – time and time again – find ourselves in a situation where another unarmed black man, or black woman, has been killed by an individual who has volunteered to protect and serve? The family deserves answers.”

Johnson’s death, along with the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, has rallied thousands in Phoenix to demonstrate for seven consecutive days to demand answers on his case, more police accountability and denounce the deaths of black Americans after interactions with law enforcement.

During a vigil for Johnson on May 29, the family brought posters with pictures of him and the slogan #WeSleepWeDie.

Phoenix police: Trooper feared for his life

A few hours after the family’s press conference, Phoenix Police Department spokeswoman Maggie Cox sent new information on the case in a statement to the media.

Cox said the trooper was patrolling the highway on his motorcycle when he noticed a car parked in the gore point of the eastbound lanes of the highway that was creating a traffic hazard. When the trooper got near the car, he noticed the smell of alcohol and “saw beer cans and a gun in the vehicle.” He removed the gun from the car, while Johnson was “passed out in the driver’s seat.”

Back at his motorcycle, the trooper secured the gun and called for backup, Cox said. Then he noticed Johnson moving and went to the car to arrest him for suspicion of driving impaired, Cox said.  

Dion Johnson's family
The family of Dion Johnson, a 28-year-old man killed by an Arizona Department of Public Safety on May 25, embraces during a press conference on June 3, 2020. The family is asking for a full police report of the incident and for the name trooper involved. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

She said during the arrest, as he was sitting on the driver seat, Johnson reached out and grabbed the trooper and “an altercation occurred.” The trooper told police investigators that because he was standing near the traffic lanes, “he feared he would be pushed into oncoming traffic.”

“So he drew his weapon and issued commands,” Cox said. “Mr. Johnson began to comply but as the Trooper was holstering his gun, Mr. Johnson reached for the gun and a second altercation ensued.”

The trooper, “fearing for his life,” then shot Johnson, Cox said. “Another trooper arrived after the shooting and assisted in removing Mr. Johnson from the vehicle.”

Michael Lambert, a community organizer with the Phoenix Local Organizing Committee, said at the press conference the shooting of Johnson was excessive.  

“If you are scared of us, do not be police officers,” he said. “Get another profession, ‘cause we are not target practice.”

Erma added, “We are not animals either.” 

According to a Washington Post analysis, unarmed black Americans are five times more likely to be shot and killed by police than unarmed white people. Other research has found that black men are more likely to experience excessive force by the police and a police officer kills 1 out of 1,000 black men and boys.

Sister: Dion should’ve been helped, not shot

Landrum, Johnson’s sister, said if her brother had stopped by the side of the road, he should’ve been helped instead of shot.

“A traffic violation, or a DUI, is not a reason to murder somebody,” she said.

Landrum made a call to the public for anyone who might have driven by and seen the incident that led to her brother’s death.

“We want answers. We want justice,” she said. “Right now we have one side of the story.”

Dion Johnson's family
Souljah Williams (left) and Camille Landrum (right) pose for a photo on June 3, 2020. Williams is the cousin of Dion Johnson, and Landrum his sister. On May 25, an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper shot and killed Johnson. was killed by a shot  the  Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Johnson’s cousin, Souljah Williams, 14, reflected on how the national movement to denounce police violence and her cousin’s death has affected her.

“I shouldn’t have to wake up and pray, asking to God if I ever get into any interaction with the police if they will hurt me because of my skin color,” Williams said.

No video of shooting, but TV station captured traffic camera footage

In a May 29 press statement released hours before a vigil was scheduled for Johnson, Cox said that “there is no known video capturing the incident.” On Wednesday’s statement to the media, she clarified there’s there’s no known video of the shooting. 

“Neither of the troopers were equipped with body-worn cameras,” she said. “There is no dash-camera video because both troopers were on motorcycles. The (Arizona Department of Transportation) highway cameras are live feed camera that do not record.”

DPS troopers aren’t equipped with body-worn cameras, which have been implemented in law enforcement agencies across the country as a tool to improve transparency and accountability. In January, Gov. Doug Ducey proposed $4.8 million to purchase 1,267 body cameras for DPS sworn staff “to enhance trooper safety, improve agency efficiency, and promote public transparency.”

But that budget request was brushed aside when the coronavirus pandemic upended the annual legislative session and lawmakers opted to pass a bare-bones budget instead of considering new spending proposals.

Twenty DPS troopers have body-worn cameras, according to a Cronkite News report from March.

The video reviewed by the family was captured by an ADOT traffic camera, but recorded by a 3TV/CBS5 journalist who recorded the live stream, Blackwell said. 

The TV station released the video on Wednesday night.

Blackwell said another public video posted on YouTube has the audio recording between the dispatcher and the trooper who encountered and shot Johnson.

In the audio, the trooper reports seeing open containers in Dion’s car, Blackwell said. Then after a 56-second silence, the trooper reports, “Shot fired, shots fired!” he said.

“How do we go from silence and sleeping, to death? It doesn’t make any sense,” Blackwell  said. “There’s nothing on that radio call that makes anyone understand that Dion Johnson was doing anything to cause the officer to shoot him.”

The audio of the call was played at the press conference. 

Blackwell said he has requested DPS, Phoenix police and ADOT retain all possible documents and evidence related to Johnson’s case. 

On Wednesday, state Attorney General Mark Brnovich issued a letter calling for reform on how incidents of police shootings are investigated. 

In an email to the Mirror, Brnovich spokesman Ryan Anderson said the AG’s office doesn’t know enough about Johnson’s case to say whether another agency should investigate instead of Phoenix PD. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.