Former La Mesa police officer loses fight to get his job back

A former La Mesa police officer will not take back his job after a San Diego Supreme Court judge ruled this week that his dismissal “supported the weight of the evidence.”

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

For the minutes, for the story, for purely formal reasons:

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

The video posted on social media shows Dages, who is White, grabbing and pushing Johnson, who is black, on a concrete bench.

The clash came two days after the assassination of George Floyd on Memorial Day in Minneapolis. Three days after Johnson’s arrest, protesters gathered in La Mesa to protest against Floyd’s death and Johnson’s arrest. The tense but peaceful protest turned into riots, with buildings burning and businesses looted.

A municipal appeals committee unanimously approved the dismissal. Dages sued in the civil court, challenging the council’s findings. Dages and his lawyers said his report was honest based on his views at the time.

On Tuesday, San Diego Supreme Court Justice Katherine Bacal rejected Dages’s request for a finding that the council had abused its discretion. He said the findings and the decision to fire him “supported the weight of the evidence” and that the evidence showed that what Dages had written in his report was “false and misleading”.

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

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

In a statement issued by the municipality, the mayor of La Mesa, Mark Arapostathis, said he was “pleased with the result of the court decision”.

“We are moving forward,” said Arapostathis.

Amaurie Johnson at a press conference in front of the La Mesa police station on August 11, 2020.

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

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

“In light of this, the petitioner’s claim that the statements in his police report are tantamount to a simple ‘artless’ is not imperative,” Bacal wrote. “Indeed, the evidence suggests that what the petitioner stated in his report was false or misleading.”

Dages also wrote that during the collision, Johnson “clenched his fists” and took a “blade stance”, a possible indication that he would fight or run.

“The video does not reflect Johnson taking a blade stance, nor does it show Johnson starting to hit the ball or punch him,” Bacall wrote. “The weight of the evidence therefore supports the Board of Appeal finding that the petitioner falsely stated in his police report that Johnson took an extreme stance.”

In addition to the dismissal, Dages was charged in the criminal court with lying in the report. In December, a court in El Cajon’s Supreme Court acquitted him.

Last week in the civil case, Bacal issued a trial verdict against Dages as he struggled to get his job back. On Friday, he heard additional arguments from lawyers before filing the case.

Dages’s lawyer argued with Bacal that the differences or clarifications Dages made in later statements about the meeting did not mean that he had deliberately falsified what had happened to Johnson.

The city’s lawyer claimed that Dages made “changing statements” as the case progressed, and did so to justify his actions during the meeting.

Bacal also rejected Dages’s request to ask the city appeals council to review the minutes of the preliminary hearing in the criminal case. Dages wanted the board to consider the testimony at that hearing by two people – Johnson and a police sergeant.

The preliminary hearing took place after the council approved Dages’s dismissal. Denying the request this week, Bacal said Dages knew the identities of both men and could have invited them to testify earlier.

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