Theodore Decker: Don't get rid of Officer Johnson for punching disorderly man

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There shouldn’t be a Columbus police officer left on the street who has a problem with body cams.

The value of the footage to distill fact from fiction proved itself again this week, when the Columbus Division of Police released a compilation of just over 49 minutes of video recorded as police responded Friday afternoon to a call of shots fired in a South Side neighborhood.

It stands in contrast to a 40-second video shot by a resident that shows Officer Anthony Johnson approach and punch a 25-year-old man. That snippet flared on social media like the strike of a match. With 48 minutes of added context, it sputters and goes out.

During a shooting call, a neighborhood can teeter on the head of a pin. The police must strike a balance between keeping the peace and keeping control. So it went Friday on Heyl Avenue.

>>Read more: Columbus police release body cam footage from altercation at shots-fired incident

On the full video, you can hear the tension of bystanders. When Officer Carl Harmon stops a woman carrying two children who tried to walk past him, Jonathan Robinson charges across the street. His fists are clenched, he pumps his arms and he gets in Harmon’s face.

“Get back!” Harmon says three times. Each time, Robinson shouts, “Or what?!”

Johnson also tells Robinson to “back up.” When he doesn’t, Johnson shoves him back.

Robinson then says, “Get the —- off me” and squares off on Johnson, who responds with a quick punch to Robinson’s head.

A commotion ensues and Robinson is among at least three people taken into custody.

“I don’t know what makes you think it would be a good idea to square off with an officer,” Johnson tells Robinson later.

You might know Johnson as the “Dancing Cop.” He has built a sizable social-media following by chronicling his often lighthearted interactions with the public, particularly children.

In this era of rushed judgment and righteous bluster, there was little love for the Dancing Cop after the short video blew up online Friday. He was Power-Tripping Racist Cop.

The known facts say otherwise. The Dispatch wrote in-depth about him last year.

Johnson, whose mother is white and father is black, grew up in an East Side apartment complex so prone to violence that it was known on the streets as “Uzi Alley.” His friends were gang members. And he hated the police. Had he not as a young man befriended a federal agent at a local gym who encouraged him into police work, Johnson predicted he would be dead or incarcerated.

He also said he was more likely to throw a punch to take a belligerent suspect into custody than reach for pepper spray or a Taser. His use-of-force history documents several instances of him doing just that. Read through those cases and try to argue he was out of line.

That’s not to say what happened on Heyl was the picture of perfect police-community relations. You can hear the frustration and distrust as Robinson’s brother tells police the family had nothing to do with the original call of shots fired.

The reasons for this distrust — and they echo in neighborhoods across the city — were not conjured from thin air but rooted in years of legitimately bad encounters with police.

But those convinced that Johnson is part of the problem should watch the in-car video as he and Robinson talk on the way to jail.

Robinson says the woman stopped by Harmon was his wife. In the moment, he says, he wanted to stand up for her and his kids.

“Processing it after, it was like, I could have did this better,” he admits.

Johnson says he gets that but had no way of knowing the man’s intentions.

“Just like you don’t know what kind of cop you gonna get,” Johnson says. “Like you could have some crazy cop you see on the news, like we don’t know who we about to get. You could have been that dude, ‘I’m going to snatch this (officer’s) gun.'”

“I see you’re not that dude,” Johnson says. “Hopefully you see I’m not that dude as well.”

Call for the head of Officer Anthony Johnson if you like.

But know this: If you truly are interested in repairing the vast gulf between the police and large swaths of this city, then ridding the division of officers like Anthony Johnson is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

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@Theodore_Decker