On Jan. 4, San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan announced that a criminal charge was filed against former La Mesa Police officer Matthew Dages in connection with the arrest of 23-year-old Amaurie Johnson near the Grossmont trolley station in La Mesa on May 27, 2020. Dages is accused of falsifying the reason for Johnson’s detention as well as his actions in a police report he filed on May 28, 2020. Dages is charged with one felony county of filing a false report and, if convicted, faces up to three years in prison.
“When someone in a position of trust such as a police officer commits a crime, it causes tremendous harm and shakes the community’s confidence in those who are sworn to protect them,” stated Stephan in a press release. “Everyone is accountable under the law and as we’ve done previously, we will file criminal charges when they are supported by facts and evidence. My office’s Special Operations division of specialized prosecutors and investigators is dedicated to the principles of conducting fair, thorough and independent reviews of public corruption and police misconduct cases with the goal of enhancing public trust and pursuing justice.”
Acting La Mesa Police Chief Ray Sweeney said the department was aware of the decision and has worked closely with DA’s Office over the past several months on this matter.
“The La Mesa Police Department holds each and every member of the Department to the highest standards of integrity in order to protect and serve our community and keep its trust,” stated Sweeney in an email. “As this is an active criminal matter, we will not be providing further comment on the circumstances surrounding the case itself.”
Dages’ attorney, Kasey Castillo of Castillo Harper APC, said Dages denies the criminal allegations of filing a false police report from his contact with Johnson at the Grossmont Trolley Station and “maintains his innocence and looks forward to clearing his name,” in a statement released on Jan. 4.
“During his nearly three years serving the City of La Mesa, Officer Dages was a recognized peace officer with no prior history of discipline, to include integrity issues,” she stated. “Officer Dages accumulated many performance-related commendations including a Compassion Challenge Coin award and was deemed a ‘role model’ officer in January 2020 by now-retired police Chief Walt Vasquez.”
La Mesa Vice Mayor Akilah Weber said as in any industry, it is important to hold those who do wrong accountable. She said La Mesa residents have asked for transparency and accountability in this situation.
“Matthew Dages broke the trust that we, the residents of La Mesa, gave him in his role as a police officer,” she said. “I applaud the San Diego County District Attorney for reviewing all of the information from the investigations and making a decision that values accountability for wrongdoing. I would also like to thank all who worked to assess and address this situation, all of the city staff, the outside investigators and our City Attorney Glenn Sabine.”
La Mesa Council member Jack Shu said he thinks Stephan did the right thing and that it is “better late than never,” but unfortunately this occurred some time after the public saw the facts of what happened during the incident.”
“It is pretty clear from what we saw on the video and other information and the investigations that officer Dages did not have an accurate [accounting] and essentially put in a false record,” he said. “Her charges are appropriate. I hope it sends a real signal to law enforcement agencies and police officers throughout our region that they cannot simply come up with false charges to ease their own wrongdoing.”
Shu said typically criminal investigations proceed administratively but he said he does not understand how that applies when a crime takes place.
“When a crime takes place usually the criminal investigative part precedes the administrative procedures. I think someone needs to look into that further,” said Shu. “Obviously, at this point, the firing of Dages has been withheld. In some ways it would have been much easier for the city had her charges been made earlier and her case moved forward because prosecutors have powers as well and they should use them.”
Bodycam footage of the May 27 altercation released by the police department showed Dages, pushing Johnson, who is Black, into a sitting position on a bench. Johnson was eventually arrested for a misdemeanor, charged with assaulting an officer. Dages confronted Johnson for allegedly smoking in public. More than a week later LMPD dropped the charges and Dages was placed on administrative leave pending the department’s investigation of the incident.
On Aug. 7, former La Mesa Police Department Chief Walt Vasquez announced that Dages was no longer employed by the city of La Mesa after reviewing the finding of an independent investigation, Vasquez announced he reviewed the findings on July 28, 2020 saying, “The remaining due process steps required by California law will be concluded as soon as possible.”
Dages is expected to be arraigned on March 9 at 1:30 p.m. The hearing will be held remotely due to COVID-19 precautions in East County. He had been employed as a La Mesa police officer since 2018 but was terminated due to this incident. The termination was recently upheld by the city of La Mesa Personnel Appeals Board after a hearing.
Calls to Johnson’s attorney seeking comment were not returned.