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Officers who beat up unarmed Arizona man said he was ‘prepping to fight’

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PHOENIX — Police involved in the beating of an Arizona man, who on video doesn’t appear to resist or attack officers, said his body language was projecting that he was preparing to fight.

A report from the May 23 incident in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa states the man, 33-year-old Robert Johnson, was “verbally defiant and confrontational.” Mesa police released the report, along with footage from police-worn cameras, on Wednesday afternoon after video released by Johnson’s attorneys circulated this week, raising criticism over the handling of the incident.

But Johnson’s attorney, Benjamin Taylor, said his client was not a threat and had already been searched. Johnson was charged with disorderly conduct and hindering prosecution.

Three officers and a sergeant are on leave while the department investigates.

Officers were responding to a call from a woman who said her ex-boyfriend was trying to break into her apartment, police said. Police arrived and found the ex-boyfriend, Erick Reyes, 20, along with Johnson. Both were detained.

Footage released by the police from officer-worn cameras show an officer approaching Johnson and Reyes.

The officer asked Johnson, who was on his phone, to sit down several times but he didn’t. The officer asks him again to sit, but Johnson instead leans against a wall while looking at his phone. An officer then tells him, “Dude they told you to sit your ass down” before several officers start to repeatedly punch him.

Johnson never appears to physically threaten or resist the officers. He was unarmed.

“Johnson’s body language was projecting he was preparing for a physical altercation,” one of the officers wrote in the report. “It appeared Johnson was trying not to sit down in order to retain a position of physical advantage by remaining on his feet.”

Will Biascoechea, the president of the police union that represents two of the officers involved, said in a statement that the incident was more complex than what is shown in the video.

“To add some context to the video, it is important to understand that the Officers were responding to a ‘domestic dispute’ that included a subject attempting to force his way into an apartment as well as the report of the presence of a gun,” Biascoechea wrote. “At this point, we urge caution and patience rather than a rush to judgment.”

The department has been criticized in the past for incidents involving use of force as police departments nationwide have also faced scrutiny. A former Mesa officer who was fired for violating department policy was tried but acquitted on a murder charge in the 2016 fatal shooting of a Texas man who was unarmed and on the ground.

Taylor said Johnson was not a threat and had already been searched when police started punching him.

“He’s a good guy, and he didn’t deserve to be beat up,” Taylor said. The lawyer said he wants the charges against Johnson dropped.

Johnson was scheduled to speak to reporters later Thursday.