LOS ANGELES ― Two police dashcam videos cast doubt on the charges against an Orange County man accused of resisting arrest by violently threatening an officer. Instead, the videos suggest an Orange County Sheriff’s Department officer brutally assaulted the man and worked with a supervisor to cover up the incident, a county public defender says.
Mohamed Sayem, an Orange County man, is facing charges of resisting arrest over a confrontation with police officers Michael Devitt and Eric Ota that turned violent in the early hours of Aug 19. Devitt claimed in an incident report and an interview with his supervisor that Sayem assaulted him after the officers found Sayem intoxicated in his car in a Stanton parking lot. But Devitt’s various accounts of the incident differed on key facts and are contradicted by footage recorded by two police dashboard cameras.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Sayem’s attorney, argued in a court filing filed Wednesday that the officer committed a clear act of excessive force and then filed a false police report to help secure a felony conviction against Sayem and to cover up the unlawful act of violence. Sanders also alleges that Devitt’s supervisor knowingly aided and abetted the filing of the false police report.
The first police video begins when officers Devitt and Ota try to wake up Sayem, who’s slouched on the driver’s seat of his car; they then ask him to show identification. Sayem appears intoxicated and disoriented, answers with partially intelligible responses, statements and insults, while laughing and at times falling over. Devitt seems to grow increasingly frustrated. When Sayem attempts to exit the car, Devitt pushes him back in his seat, warning him not to get out. “Don’t touch me like that,” Sayem tells the officer.
As Sayem appears to try to pull away from the officer, Devitt yanks Sayem’s arm out of the vehicle, the video shows, and pulls Sayem out of the vehicle entirely. Devitt then pins Sayem against the car, grabs him by the face and punches him repeatedly and rapidly in the face. By the third punch, Sayem appears to lose consciousness and begins to collapse. As Devitt continues to deliver blows, about six in total, Officer Ota, who has come around to the driver’s side of the vehicle, appears to forcibly pull Sayem downward until he falls to the ground.
“Moe needs to calm down a little bit,” Devitt says, as Sayem lies face down on the ground, barely moving.
“Are you going to shoot me?” Sayem later asks, still lying face first on the ground.
“No,” Devitt answers.
“Like to,” Ota adds.
“Come on, bro, really? Really?” Sayem asks. But the officers don’t respond.
The second dashcam video was recorded from the vehicle of Sgt. Christopher Hibbs, the supervisor of Devitt and Otta, who arrived on the scene just minutes after the incident. Devitt can be heard telling his supervisor that he pulled Sayem from the car, and punched the drunken man because Sayem tried to “bear hug” him. “He’s way taller than me,” Devitt tells Hibbs about Sayem, who is 5 feet, 11 inches tall, “and like he just comes up on me and essentially, he almost hugs on me. So, I punch him in the face probably like three or four times.”
Toward the end of the second dashcam video, while Hibbs is still present, several unidentified officers have gathered at the scene and stand near the hood of Devitt’s squad car. The officers tell Hibbs about two fights with suspects they have recently gotten into. “That was a good fight,” one of the deputies says. “I got in another good one last week,” an officer adds laughingly.
During this interaction, Hibbs checks to see if the audio on his body recording device is working. “This thing on,” Hibbs says. “It says on. On is on, right?” Moments later, apparently startled, one of the officers says to Hibbs, “You’re recording this now?” An officer responds, “You’ve been recording this the whole…” and before the sentence is completed, another officer standing near Hibbs appears to flip off Hibbs’ recording device, which stops the audio for the remainder of the video at the scene.
Devitt’s accounts, from his interviews with his supervisor, to his final report, change a number of times.
In his incident report, Devitt contradicts the dashcam video and wrote that he “maintained a grasp on [Sayem’s] arm but he stepped out of the vehicle and stood over me.” Devitt leaves out the “bear hug” claims he made to his supervisor during the moments after the incident occurred.
Devitt also changed his account of what precipitated his punches: “As I pushed him against the car, Sayem grabbed my external vest and started pulling at it. ... He did not let go of my vest and continued to physically struggle,” Devitt wrote in the incident report. “Due to his aggressive demeanor … I [sic] believed Sayem was going to continue to try and physically assault me.”
In the video, Sayem is not seen grabbing onto Devitt’s vest, pulling at it or refusing to let it go.
While still at the scene during a later interview with Hibbs, Devitt once again amends his account. “He tried to bear hug me,” Devitt said, and alleges that Sayem used racial slurs during the incident. “He starts going into this verbal berate of nigga this, nigga that,” Devitt added, even though the video never shows Sayem using racial slurs during the incident.
“A review of the full video indicates that the deputy made every attempt to deescalate the situation and provide the subject multiple opportunities to simply provide his identification,” said Carrie Braun, public information officer for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. “The subject refused to do so and attempted to physically engage the deputy, during which the deputy used force appropriate for the situation to gain control of an uncooperative, assaultive and intoxicated person. Every use of force by a deputy is reviewed to ensure it’s consistent with Department policy and procedure. The deputy’s report is consistent with the video in its entirety, and charges were filed by the OC District Attorney’s office. Any assertion otherwise substantially misrepresents the facts, and serves only to swell an anti-law enforcement narrative.”
It’s not the first time Hibbs’ name has come up in relation to the use of excessive force. Prosecutors in Orange County charged Hibbs in 2009 with felony assault and battery and felony with a Taser for shocking a handcuffed man sitting in the back of a police car. The case against Hibbs ended in a mistrial and dismissal. Prosecutors blamed the result on a “code of silence” among sheriff’s deputies who testified.
Hibbs was promoted to sergeant in 2014. In his motion, Sanders, Sayem’s attorney, questions why the sheriff’s department “placed Hibbs in a role where he could use his specialized experience and knowledge to help fellow officers defeat righteous excessive force claims and keep unwanted truths behind the thin blue line.”
Orange County’s criminal justice system has been in crisis for years as allegations of cheating cops and prosecutors, operating without fear of consequence, continue to mount. The allegation comes in the wake of years of evidence coming to light about misconduct in county jails involving the illegal use of informants. The U.S. Department of Justice and the California attorney general both announced investigations into the sheriff’s department. But in the years since the probes were launched both agencies have failed to announce any findings or bring any charges against any officials. Officer Devitt worked in one of the specialized units within the jail that has been the focus of these investigations before being transferred to a patrol assignment.
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