RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A white former North Carolina police officer pleaded guilty Friday to beating a black pedestrian in a case that sparked outrage after graphic video of the violent 2017 encounter surfaced.
Christopher Hickman, the ex-Asheville officer, was sentenced to a year of supervised probation after admitting in court to assault by strangulation, assault inflicting serious injury and communicating threats.
Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams said in a news release that the plea deal was brokered after Hickman met with pedestrian Johnnie Rush through a mediated process called restorative justice.
Body camera footage of the August 2017 beating showed Hickman hitting Rush and putting him in a chokehold after officers accused Rush of jaywalking. Footage became public when the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper published a leaked clip months after the beating, prompting angry questions from the community about transparency and use of force.
Williams said he engaged in the process that led to the plea deal, overseen by a legal scholar on mediation, after talking to Rush and asking him “what justice could look like for him in this case.” Williams said it gave Rush an opportunity to sit down with Hickman and have his questions answered.
“Mr. Hickman answered questions at length, took responsibility, and offered an apology,” the prosecutor said, adding that Rush said he was “more at peace” after meeting with Hickman.
Williams said that if Hickman complies with probation and doesn’t break the law for the year, his conviction will be wiped away.
An attorney for Rush didn’t immediately respond to an email asking if he or his client had further comment.
Hickman’s attorney Thomas Amburgey issued a statement after the plea hearing saying the process allowed his client and Rush “to sit across the table from one another not as adversaries, but as individuals. Both men were open, honest and candid with each other.”
Body camera video shows Hickman subduing Rush, putting him in a chokehold and shocking him with a stun gun after officers accused him of crossing outside a crosswalk at night near a minor league ballpark and breweries popular with tourists. Hickman resigned after an internal investigation of the arrest.
It took several months after the violent encounter for the video to become public through the leak to the newspaper. Public reaction included angry comments at a community meeting with police officials. Even the City Council expressed anger it wasn’t informed of the case for months.
The city eventually released more footage after getting court approval, which is generally required by North Carolina law on police video.
Last year, Asheville reached a $650,000 settlement with Rush over his treatment. The city’s police chief at the time of the beating also resigned .
A law enforcement consulting firm that performed an external review urged more thorough police department reviews of body camera footage to catch officers’ potentially problematic behavior before it escalates.