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‘You choking me, sir’: Baltimore Police officer charged with assault, misconduct over forceful arrest captured on video

Baltimore Police Officer Leon Riley has been charged with first-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office for an arrest last December that was captured on video and shows him wrapping his arm around a suspect’s neck.

In the video, the man can be heard saying, “You choking me. You choking me, sir.”

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Prosecutors wrote in the indictment that the 29-year-old officer, “did recklessly engage in conduct, to wit: restricting the breathing of a citizen, that created a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury.”

In addition, they indicted Riley on charges of assaulting two other men in April 2019 and committing perjury by lying in a statement of probable cause. The officer could not be reached for comment Thursday. Online court records did not list an attorney for him.

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Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby issued a statement about the charges, saying she would seek justice regardless of race, religion or occupation.

“Police accountability is something we take very seriously because it’s an honor and a privilege to put on a uniform and wear a badge in order to serve and protect the citizens of this city,” she said in the statement. “If and when you violate that trust, you will be held accountable,”

Video of the arrest last December spread widely online and led police to announce they were investigating the officer’s actions. Baltimore Police are prohibited from using a chokehold unless the situation calls for deadly force, according to department regulations.

Riley was suspended when the criminal investigation began last April, police spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said. Because Riley has been charged with the felony of first-degree assault, he has been suspended without pay, Eldridge said.

“This type of conduct, if proven, will not be condoned,” she said, adding that police cooperated with prosecutors to bring the charges.

In the first case, the charges stemmed from Riley’s arrest of 23-year-old David Dixon in West Baltimore. Police charged Dixon with with felony drug possession, trespassing and resisting arrest. Within days, prosecutors dropped all charges against him.

Prosecutors dismissed the charges not for the viral video, but because of what they saw on the officers’ body worn cameras, a spokeswoman said. Baltimore police at the time said Dixon bit the officer in the hand, drawing blood.

The video shows Riley and another officer lying on top of Dixon to restrain him. The officers are commanding Dixon to put his hands behind his back.

Someone from the streets shouts at them, “How? How? You choking him out.”

Similar words of “I can’t breathe” have become a rallying cry during protests against police in Baltimore and around the country after the May death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, from a white police officer’s knee on his neck.

Last December, the video of Dixon’s arrest drew attention from City Council President Brandon Scott.

“Clearly, some of the images in the video have raised concerns for me,” Scott said at the time. “I want to know everything that happened before making a judgment.”

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Last month, Dixon sued Riley over the arrest as well as another officer identified as “Sergeant Flynn” in the complaint. The West Baltimore man alleges the two officers struck and choked him without provocation. He’s suing them, the city and the police department for at least $75,000.

“The way they had him on the ground, it was essentially impossible for him to comply with their request,” said Roland Harris, Dixon’s attorney. “They were choking him pretty good. They punched him in his face. I just found their tactics to be aggressive, overly aggressive.”

The officers have not yet responded to the lawsuit. Dixon is asking for a jury trial.

In the second case against Riley, he’s accused of assaulting Stephon Martin and Sterlyn Butcher on April 22, 2019 in Southwest Baltimore. He also lied in the charging documents, prosecutors allege.

Online court records show Martin was charged by Riley and three other officers with obstruction, disorderly conduct and failure to obey. Three months later, those charges were dropped. Court records show no case on that date against Butcher.

In the charging documents written by Riley — the same for which prosecutors accuse him of perjury — the officer writes that Martin and Butcher interfered when detectives stopped a man suspected of carrying a marijuana cigar and other drugs.

Riley wrote that Butcher held up a cellphone within inches of his face, so he swatted the man’s hand away. Then Martin grabbed his body camera and lunged at him, Riley wrote. The officer handcuffed and arrested Martin at the scene.

Riley has served eight years on the force and earned a combined $113,500 in salary and overtime in the city’s 2019 fiscal year, according to the city records.

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