INDIANAPOLIS — An Indianapolis police officer has been criminally charged after he was caught on video punching a high school student in the face in an encounter that authorities say he lied about in police reports.
Robert Lawson, 43, is charged with obstruction of justice, perjury and official misconduct, all felonies in Indiana. He is also charged with misdemeanor battery and false informing, court records show.
Lawson, who has been an officer for about a decade, turned himself in Sept. 16, the day the charges were filed.
"We hope this sends a message to the community that we take such allegations very seriously and are prepared to hold individuals accountable for their actions, regardless of their position," Marion County Chief Trial Deputy Ryan Mears said.
The teen’s family has also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Lawson and two unnamed officers.
Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said last week that Lawson struck the 17-year-old boy "without a legitimate concern for self-defense" during the Aug. 29 encounter outside Shortridge High School. Lawson then lied in a probable cause affidavit he submitted in support of the teenager's arrest, the prosecutor said.
The boy has not been charged with a crime.
"In the official documents allegedly prepared and signed by Officer Lawson on August 29, it states that he threw an open-hand palm strike in fear that the 17-year-old was about to strike him," Curry said in a news release. "Officer Lawson allegedly reports that the palm strike was successful, and officers were able to cuff the 17-year-old without any further force.
“These statements are believed to be false and contrary to video evidence, which appears to show Officer Lawson striking the juvenile with a closed fist and continuing to use force, including a knee strike to the juvenile’s abdomen or chest area.”
Lawson also claimed that a fellow officer, Sgt. Marzetta Jenkins, told him she saw the teen swing a fist at Lawson right before Lawson struck the boy. In an interview with investigators, Jenkins denied seeing the boy act out toward her colleague.
The allegations against Lawson came out after a 27-second video of a portion of the confrontation went viral on social media, prompting condemnation of the officer's conduct. Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent issued an emotionally wrought statement about the incident the following day.
"As a black woman and a mother of black children, it isn't possible to watch the video of the incident that occurred yesterday at Shortridge without immediately thinking about the other incidents in our country that occur between white police officers and black people, especially males," Johnson wrote on her official Facebook page. "Often, I am left feeling a number of emotions -- devastation often chief among them."
Johnson said the school district prioritizes racial equity and, as administrators awaited the outcome of the police investigation, they couldn’t “ignore how the the dynamics of race in both our city and our country consistently undergird these situations and leave our community feeling angry, hurt and, in some cases, hopeless.
"I refuse to be hopeless," Johnson wrote. "I look forward to those of us who are a part of the larger TeamIPS community engaging in these challenging conversations in the weeks and months to come. I hope our community will join us."
Terrance Kinnard, the attorney representing the teen's family, acknowledged earlier this month that the impact of the incident "has been felt city-wide."
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Chief Bryan Roach announced a few days after the incident that Lawson had been placed on leave while the incident was under investigation.
"The video shows a clear image of a closed fist punch to the face, a technique which is not taught or reasonable given the facts known to us at this time," Roach said in a statement, according to The Indianapolis Star.
Read the charges against Robert Lawson, along with the probable cause affidavit for his arrest, below.
Court records state that Lawson and Jenkins were two of several Indianapolis officers called to Shortridge High the afternoon of Aug. 29 to help break up a fight in the halls. When Jenkins and Lawson arrived, the boy, identified in court records by the initials AW, was being restrained on the ground.
The family’s lawsuit states the teen had been attacked by a group of students, the culmination of an ongoing conflict over the preceding weeks. Officers used pepper spray to disperse the crowd, a fact that investigators confirmed in state court records.
Jenkins calmed AW down and walked the boy, in handcuffs, to the north end of the school, where his aunt and guardian, Danielle Pointer, was waiting to pick him and her 16-year-old son up, the affidavit in Lawson’s case states. The school had been placed on lockdown and Pointer was not able to enter the building.
Pointer grew angry and asked why her nephew was in handcuffs, since he was the victim in the fight, the document says. Jenkins uncuffed the teen and told Pointer to take him and leave the school property.
Pointer continued to argue with the officers because they would not allow her nephew or her son, who was also involved in the incident, to retrieve their book bags or other personal belongings from the building, according to the lawsuit.
“Ms. Pointer was also protesting the fact that school administrators were inside the building and would not respond to her complaints regarding the police conduct,” the suit states.
"The more she asked questions, the more they were denying her responses," Kinnard said during a Sept. 5 news conference.
Watch attorney Terrance Kinnard discuss the lawsuit against Officer Robert Lawson below, courtesy of the Star.
Multiple video recordings show the confrontation that happened next, including one shot from across the street.
As Pointer continues to scream and curse at officers, Lawson threatens to arrest her.
“You wanna go to jail? You wanna go to jail?” Lawson asks, reaching behind him for his handcuffs. “Let’s go.”
“For what? Protecting my child?” Pointer responds.
At one point, Pointer’s son is heard telling Lawson, “Chill out, bro. Chill out.” Like the witness across the street, Pointer’s son had begun recording the confrontation.
Pointer is seen turning away from the officer as he reaches for her arm. Her nephew then steps toward Lawson, pulling his pants up as he does.
Watch video of the confrontation between police and Pointer, and the striking of her nephew, below. Warning: The footage contains graphic language.
Lawson said the teen, whose face he described in police reports as being “clenched in anger,” had “both fists balled up and began to blade his body,” meaning he appeared to prepare for a fight.
Jenkins told investigators she believed the teen was “booting up,” which the affidavit states is often followed by a physical confrontation. Jenkins described the teen as moving “aggressively” toward Lawson.
“Sgt. Jenkins stated that later, after AW was in cuffs, he made the statement that nobody was going to put hands on his aunt, and he was trying to protect her,” the affidavit says.
Pointer’s son, identified as DP in court documents, later told investigators he believed his cousin stepped in front of Lawson to protect Pointer. AW told investigators he approached the officer because he thought he wanted him to come closer.
Kinnard said the teen thought Lawson was arresting him, so he was trying to follow orders.
"He took one step forward and complied completely with what he believed was the officer's commands," the attorney said.
Lawson said he struck the teen with an open hand at that point.
The videos tell a different story.
Watch the video recorded from across the street below, courtesy of WISH-TV
Though the teen’s face is not visible in the recordings, the videos show he dropped his hands to his sides as he stepped in front of Lawson, who then punched the boy in the left jaw with a closed fist. The boy was knocked to the side.
“Lawson then places AW’s neck in a clinch by placing both his left hand behind AW’s neck and pulling him down while his right hand is grabbing AW’s shoulder,” the affidavit says.
The officer then knees the boy in the stomach.
Pointer grabbed her nephew from behind, and they both fell to the ground, the document states. She is seen in the video a moment later helping the teen to his feet.
“We’re trying to leave,” she shouts at the officers. “We are trying to leave.”
The family’s lawsuit indicates an unnamed officer, identified as Officer Doe, ordered DP to stop recording Lawson’s actions and attempted to seize the boy’s cellphone.
Read Danielle Pointer's lawsuit against Lawson below.
Curry said during a news conference last week that charges against Lawson likely could not have been made without the video evidence, according to the Star. Roach, the police chief, is recommending the city fire the officer, the newspaper reported.
Kinnard said Pointer recognizes the swift action taken by the police department. He said she is also grateful for the quick response and assistance of the superintendent and other administrators in the aftermath of the officer’s alleged assault of her nephew.
The attorney said that despite emotions running high that afternoon outside the school, there was no reason for Lawson to strike the teen.
"No one made any aggressive remarks. No one was disrespectful to the officer," Kinnard said. "This was simply an unprovoked striking by an officer who, in my opinion, in our opinion, was not following his training and experience."
Kinnard described AW as an exceptional student who works two part-time jobs after school, including as a tutor to elementary school children. Pointer, who sat beside the attorney during the news conference, nodded her head in agreement as he talked about her nephew.
“He is the child that we all want to raise,” Kinnard said.
The teen has suffered from depression since the incident, the attorney said. He told reporters the boy believes as he was taught by his family, that adults are authority figures, and he should follow their commands, when they are given reasonably.
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