ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic and Marc Curtis, the lawyer for Steven Johnson, agreed on one thing Wednesday.
The police car Johnson was driving in the early morning of May 10, 2018, hit Ronald Glover Jr. as Glover was on foot, running from police.
But it will be Berrien County Trial Court Judge Arthur Cotter who will decide whether it was on purpose, or accidental. The lawyers delivered their closing arguments Wednesday following a three-day bench trial. In a bench trial, it is the judge, rather than a jury, who decides a verdict.
Cotter said he wants to review testimony and police car video footage before making a decision, and he will deliver his verdict at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Johnson, 51, was a Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety sergeant when he hit Glover, 25, with his Chevy Tahoe police cruiser in an alley off North Fair Avenue. It happened at about 1:45 a.m. as Glover was fleeing from police on foot. Johnson was fired from the police department and was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon, a 4-year felony; and reckless driving, a 93-day misdemeanor.
Last week, Sepic called several police witnesses who testified about what happened, and played video footage from the incident. Police had initially confronted Glover because he was riding a bicycle in the dark with no light on it. He sped off on the bike, but a short time later ditched it and started to flee on foot. Glover, who was on parole at the time, had ditched a bag of marijuana while running and was ultimately charged, pleaded guilty and is serving a year in jail.
The dash cam footage from Johnson’s patrol vehicle shows Glover riding away from police on a bicycle while they try to block his escape path. He then drops the bike and runs into the alley in the 100 block of North Fair Avenue, and Johnson follows in his squad car. Seconds later, the vehicle strikes Glover.
The defense called just one witness Wednesday, Michael Hoeker, a long-time retired police officer who still works as an accident reconstructionist. He testified about how he determines speed and perception/reaction time. He said it would take the average person 1.5 seconds to react after perceiving someone or something in the road.
“The reaction is moving the foot, then they still have to move it to the brake pedal, which is another 0.3 to 0.5 seconds. Then the vehicle doesn’t immediately stop. It takes about 0.3 seconds for the brakes to engage,” Hoeker said. He noted that, according to state police, Johnson’s speed in the alley averaged 14 mph.
He said as part of his investigation he went to the scene and also examined the vehicle Johnson was driving to determine any obstructions in vision that would have caused a delayed reaction. He said the in-car camera would have a much better view than the driver would have. Further, he said, there would be other factors to consider such as darkness, rain, fog, flashing lights of police cars and “radios blasting” as Johnson and two other police officers pursued Glover.
“(Johnson) stopped remarkably fast,” Hoeker testified. He said that in his opinion, Johnson’s vehicle striking Glover was not intentional.
In cross examination, Sepic said the distractions Hoeker referred to would have been occurring the entire time, so, “What impact do those things have on his reaction time once he perceived the hazard? Nothing.”
The judge, who is allowed to ask questions during a bench trial, asked Hoeker if using a vehicle to stop a person who is fleeing on foot would be a reasonable use of force and Hoeker responded “No.”
Further, the judge asked, “You’ve described 14 mph (in the alley) as a reasonable speed. Is it really?”
Hoeker responded, “Fourteen may be a little high.”
Johnson did not take the witness stand in his own defense.
In his closing argument, Sepic said on occasions when his office has to make tough decisions related to police officers they work with every day, “It’s tough. They’re on the street and we’re in our office Monday morning quarterbacking.”
But, he said, “Johnson was frustrated with Glover and was chasing him. Hoeker says Glover was struck at 14 mph. I suggest it was more. I think that points to Johnson wanting to bump him down, instead of getting out of his squad and chasing him on foot.”
In his closing argument, Curtis said, “His (Sepic’s) job isn’t to suggest and make suggestions. His job is to prove, and he hasn’t proven anything.”
After being hit by Johnson’s squad car, Glover almost immediately gets up off the ground and starts running again. At that point, Johnson gets out of his vehicle and chases him on foot.
“If he’s that frustrated and upset, why doesn’t he chase him down again? He doesn’t. He gets out of the vehicle and chases him on foot,” Curtis said. “That doesn’t show aggression. That shows him doing his job.”
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