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Boston police chief denies officer choked suspect

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans spoke Tuesday.
Boston Police Commissioner William Evans spoke Tuesday.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Police Commissioner William B. Evans acknowledged Tuesday that a videotaped incident showing an officer putting his hands on the neck of a handcuffed suspect might look "terrible," but he said the young man was not choked.

A nearly three-minute video posted to YouTube on Monday shows a man identified by his attorney as 18-year-old Elvin Vargas approaching a plainclothes officer who was filming civilians on Washington Street in Roslindale. The teen shouts profanities about the police.

Another plainclothes officer follows Vargas as he walks away, grabbing his arm and walking him to a police cruiser. That officer tells a uniformed officer, identified by police as Officer Ted R. Rivera, to arrest Vargas for disorderly conduct. A man recording the incident shouts that Vargas was practicing his freedom of speech.

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While handcuffed, Vargas begins shouting obscenities and resists efforts to be placed into the cruiser. Rivera is then seen putting his hands on Vargas's neck for roughly 10 seconds.

A crowd that had gathered erupts into frantic shouts. A woman can be heard telling Vargas to get into the car. Vargas is then pushed into the back seat, and the officers can be seen pushing people away from the cruiser.

"He wouldn't go into the car and the officer involved was struggling," Evans said at a news conference originally scheduled to announce a donation for new police bicycles. The officer "put his hands around his neck trying to push him . . . back down in the car. There clearly was no real choking going on there," Evans said.

But Vargas's attorney said the officer's hands should never have been around the teen's neck and the young man should not have been arrested.

"There was no probable cause to place him under arrest," said attorney Stephanie Soriano-Mills. "He did not do anything wrong. . . . Because he said things that the officers did not like, an officer puts his hand around my client's neck and begins squeezing? That's not allowable by way of the policies and procedures listed in excessive force."

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Evans said Vargas was disturbing the peace.

"When you're agitating the crowd to the point where they're setting in on the police, then to me that rises to the level of obviously being disorderly and disturbing the peace," Evans said. "He was out there in the middle of the street yelling and screaming . . . there's little kids around, it's broad daylight — to me that's an issue."

Soriano-Mills said Vargas lives in Roslindale but declined to say what took place before the video began or what caused Vargas to begin shouting profanities. She said the video likely was shot Aug. 16, and Vargas was arraigned the following day.

Evans said officers were near Archdale Village, a public housing development, making arrests following a drug deal. There had been an uptick in violence in the area, including a homicide in late July, Evans said.

Two people from Norwood had allegedly come to the neighborhood that day to purchase drugs, Evans said. The commissioner said Vargas had nothing to do with that incident.

As officers were leaving a parking lot, Evans said, Vargas was on a bike when he blocked a cruiser and traffic on the street before launching a barrage of profanities.

A plainclothes officer is seen in the video recording the crowd. Evans said the Drug Unit videotapes for investigative purposes, observing who is around during drug deals.

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Boston police said they have launched an investigation into the incident.

The American Civil Liberties Union has condemned the officers' actions. Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said Monday the officers used excessive force and had no basis to arrest Vargas.

The Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, a prominent minister, said there will be a community meeting Wednesday at the Baker House in Dorchester to talk about the video, followed by a 10 a.m. news conference.

"The message we're looking to communicate is that there are some issues in terms of the conduct of our young people which are not first and foremost law enforcement issues, but family and community'' issues, Rivers said, adding that the officers showed restraint. "This young person needed a whole bunch of home training. Had this happened in Baltimore, he might end up on a stretcher, had this happened in Chicago we might be coming to see him at a morgue . . . this young man was simply arrested."

Evans said Rivera is a 30-year veteran of the force assigned to the department's West Roxbury police station.

According to police records, Rivera has had three citizen complaints regarding use of force, disrespectful treatment, and offensive language, with the latest filed in 2001. The department launched an internal investigation in 2006 for unbecoming conduct. The disposition of the citizen complaints and the outcome of the internal investigation were not immediately available Tuesday night.

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Evans described Rivera as a "great cop" and said the public should be alarmed by how the officers were treated.

"We do a dangerous job, and we don't deserve the type of treatment that we got in this particular incident," Evans said. "It's sort of lousy that the focus isn't on the behavior of that young kid."

Evans said excessive force complaints are down by 62 percent over the last five years, with the number of complaints declining to 20 last year.

Evans said he will hold a meeting Wednesday at police headquarters with clergy, civic leaders, and elected officials to discuss the video.


Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.