The North Carolina police officer seen using a Taser and punching a black man in a video recently leaked to the news media had been suspended in the past, personnel records show, and was known as a “smart aleck,” according to a former supervisor.
The officer, Christopher W. Hickman, 31, was charged on Thursday with assault by strangulation, a felony, and assault inflicting serious injury and communicating threats, which are misdemeanors.
“I don’t know what happened to him over the years,” Rondell Lance, the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police and a 26-year veteran of the Asheville Police Department, said in a phone interview on Saturday. “Evidently something happened. It shocked us all that he would react in such a violent way.”
Mr. Lance, who retired as a sergeant in 2014, said Officer Hickman had worked for him for about a year when he was just starting out on the force.
“He always had what we call here in the mountains that little smart-aleck attitude,” Mr. Lance said.
At the time, Mr. Lance said, Officer Hickman was a new officer, so he was constantly being evaluated.
“We didn’t have any real problems,” he said. Now, he said, members of the Police Department are “disgusted” by his actions.
During the Aug. 25 episode in Asheville, Officer Hickman strangled Johnnie J. Rush, 33, until he lost consciousness, according to an arrest warrant, and struck him repeatedly in the head. In the video, Officer Hickman can be seen shocking Mr. Rush with a Taser and punching him in the face with closed fists.
Officer Hickman and an officer he was training had accused Mr. Rush of jaywalking and trespassing while he walked home from his job at a Cracker Barrel restaurant late at night.
According to personnel records, Officer Hickman was hired in 2008 and suspended three years later, in 2011. Later that year, Officer Hickman was promoted to senior police officer.
In 2015, Officer Hickman, who was a detective at the time, was honored with a medal of honor for “outstanding work and dedication in 2014.” He was suspended again in October 2017, records show.
“The suspensions depicted on a public personnel record are disciplinary suspensions, meaning the employee was determined to have committed a violation of policy,” Christina Hallingse, a spokeswoman for the Asheville Police Department, said in an email on Sunday. The 2017 suspension was not a result of the episode involving Mr. Rush, she added.
She declined to provide details about the suspensions because she said they were not part of the public record.
Officer Hickman did not return phone or email messages on Sunday.
An investigation into nearly 60 hours of Officer Hickman’s body camera footage that had been shot leading up to the August episode revealed at least four times when he “displayed discourteous and rude conduct” to members of the public, the details of which were not disclosed.
Those instances are not under investigation, Police Chief Tammy Hooper told the television station WLOS.
On Thursday, Vanessa Bogany told WLOS that her 15-year-old grandson had an encounter with Officer Hickman in June after officers responded to reports that someone was waving a gun at an Asheville pool.
Ms. Bogany said it turned out to be a BB gun. Her grandson was not involved in the episode, but he ran from the scene and Officer Hickman chased him down, handcuffed him and put him in a police car and used profane language, she told WLOS.
On Wednesday night, a large crowd attended the Asheville’s citizens police advisory committee meeting, the first community forum to discuss the episode involving Mr. Rush.
Many residents wanted to know why it took so long to charge Mr. Hickman after the police reviewed the body camera footage.
Video of the forum showed people shouting at officials, demanding accountability. The gathering quickly became an outlet for the anger and frustration that have been simmering since the video of Mr. Rush’s arrest was published in The Citizen Times on Feb. 28.
“Where’s the progress when we tell tourists to come here,” said DeLores Venable, an activist, “but black tourists gotta face getting beat down on Biltmore Avenue because you’re jaywalking?” The Associated Press reported.
Chief Hooper took away Officer Hickman’s gun and badge and placed him on administrative duty after reviewing the body camera footage on Aug. 25, the day of the episode with Mr. Rush.
She had planned to fire him in January, according to police documents, but he resigned before she could do so. Chief Hooper also waited until January — shortly after the administrative investigation had concluded — to ask the State Bureau of Investigation to start a criminal investigation, the documents show.
“That’s just how we have handled all of these cases in the past,” she told WLOS. “When we’ve looked through our records through past excessive force complaints, we can’t find a single one where we’ve had a criminal investigation that was involved with it. So our normal procedure and process is to initiate the administrative investigation.”
A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Investigation, which declined Chief Hooper’s request, said the agency is usually contacted much earlier.
“Typically, if an agency suspects criminal behavior on the part of an employee, the S.B.I. is called to investigate immediately,” the spokeswoman, Patty McQuillan, told The Citizen Times.
Chief Hooper acknowledged in her interview with WLOS that the City Council should have been told much earlier.
In a statement on Wednesday, the City Council said it was calling for an audit of the Police Department as well as the decision-making process in failing to notify the council.
“Like you, we are angry. We are angry that a black man walking home from a long day at work was stopped for jaywalking — something most of us do regularly without consequence,” the statement said. “And we are furious that no one thought that we — Asheville’s elected leaders — needed to know about this incident.”