Ex-La Mesa cop loses fight to get his job back

A former La Mesa police officer will not return to his job after a San Diego Superior Court judge ruled this week that his dismissal was “supported by the weight of evidence.”

Matthew Dages, 31, was fired in the summer of 2020 based on the results of an administrative investigation which found he lied on a police report after arresting a then 23-year-old man near the center Grossmont Transit. Dages had reported that the man, Amaurie Johnson, was smoking in a non-smoking area and had taken a fighting stance with the officer.

For memory :

1:21 p.m. April 13, 2022This story has been edited to correct the name of San Diego Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal.

Bystander video posted to social media showed Dages, who is white, grabbing and pushing Johnson, who is black, onto a concrete bench.

The encounter took place two days after the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day in Minneapolis. Three days after Johnson’s arrest, protesters gathered in La Mesa to rally against Floyd’s death and Johnson’s arrest. The tense but peaceful protest turned tumultuous after dark, with buildings burned and businesses looted.

A city appeals board unanimously upheld the dismissal. Dages filed a civil lawsuit, challenging the board’s findings. Dages and his attorneys said his report was honest based on his perspective at the time.

On Tuesday, San Diego Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal denied Dages’ request to find that the board abused its discretion. She said the findings and the decision to fire him “were supported by the weight of evidence”, and that this evidence showed that what Dages wrote in his report “was false and misleading”.

Dages’ lawyer said his client could continue to fight him in court.

“We are, of course, disappointed with the decision and Mr. Dages will consider his options to appeal.”

In a statement released by the City of La Mesa, City Attorney Glenn Sabine said he was “grateful for the patience, cooperation and courtesy” shown by all involved “during the long and tedious process leading to the judge’s decision”.

Amaurie Johnson at a press conference outside the La Mesa Police Department on August 11, 2020.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In his police report, Dages wrote that Johnson had smoked on the platform of the trolley. Dages later admitted this was inaccurate. Johnson was holding a cell phone, not a cigarette.

“In light of this, the claimant’s assertion that the statements in his police report constitute mere ‘inartness’ is unconvincing,” Bacal wrote. “Indeed, the evidence confirms that what the petitioner said in his report was false or misleading.”

Dages also wrote that during the encounter, Johnson “clenched his fists” and adopted a “blade stance”, a possible clue that he would be fighting or running.

“Video footage does not reflect Johnson taking a bladed stance, nor does it show Johnson beginning to clench or clench his fists,” Bacal wrote. “Therefore, the weight of the evidence supports the Appeal Board’s finding that the petitioner falsely stated in his police report that Johnson took a cutting position.”

Along with being fired, Dages was charged in a criminal court with lying in the report. In December, a jury in El Cajon Superior Court acquitted him.

Last week in the civil case, Bacal issued an interim decision against Dages as he fights to get his job back. On Friday, the judge heard additional arguments from lawyers before submitting the case.

Dages’ attorney argued to Bacal that differences or clarifications made by Dages in later statements about the encounter did not mean that he intentionally misrepresented what happened with Johnson.

The city attorney argued that Dages made “shifting statements” as the case evolved, and did so to justify his actions during the encounter.

Bacal also denied Dages’ request that the city appeals board review the transcript of the preliminary hearing in the criminal case. Dages wanted the council to consider testimony at this hearing from two people – Johnson and a police sergeant.

The preliminary hearing took place after the board upheld Dages’ dismissal. Denying the request this week, Bacal said Dages knew the identities of the two men and could have called them earlier to testify before the council.

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