One of the 12 Merced police officers involved in a large melee last month with party-goers at a downtown hookah lounge lost his department-issued body camera during the scuffle, and police commanders are seeking the public’s help to find it.
Merced Police Department posted a news release on its Facebook page around 11:30 p.m. Monday night asking for anyone with information regarding the camera’s whereabouts to contact investigators.
Police have said they were looking for 23-year-old Bryant Brown inside Chandelier’s Hookah Lounge & Smoke Shop on Main Street on July 9 before police arrested five college students, including a UC Merced student. Police said they attempted to serve a warrant shortly after midnight to arrest Brown, who since has been arrested and transferred to Mariposa County Jail.
Accounts have differed related to the lounge incident, with police saying they reacted with force after meeting an aggressive crowd while several students have said they witnessed an officer throw the first punch, striking a student in the face.
Part of the melee was captured on a cellphone video that since has gone viral on the Internet. The video shows several police officers with stun weapons pointed at people, several club patrons being placed in handcuffs, and shouting between officers and the crowd. The clip also shows Officer Joseph Opinski turn and fire a round at one man from an anti-riot weapon, which police have described as a “sage weapon.”
Capt. Bimley West told the Sun-Star that Officer Brandon Wilkins lost his body camera when he was assaulted at the hookah lounge. Wilkins, who has been with the department three years, reported the camera missing at the scene that night. Detectives later returned to the hookah lounge to look for it but didn’t find it.
“We hope a good citizen will turn it back over to the police department,” West said. “We’re trying to do a thorough investigation to determine what our officers did right and if they did something wrong. At the same time, we’re trying to determine if the citizens who were there that night did everything right or if they did something wrong.
“We’re running an unbiased investigation,” he said.
In total, a dozen officers responded to the incident and each of them wore a body camera.
On the night of the melee, Merced police arrested Isa Bey, 22, a UC Merced student from Oakland, and his brothers Nedir, 20; Yakub, 24; and Majied, 21. Officers also arrested Ciasonne Olajuwon Ratto-Foster, 20, a cousin of the Beys.
UC Merced students later took to the streets in protest, marching from campus, along G Street and to the Merced Police Department’s main office on West 22nd Street.
None of the arrested college students have so far been charged with any crimes, according to the Rob Carroll, chief deputy district attorney for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office. He called for anyone else with more videos of the melee to come forward.
Prosecutors have said they can’t comment on the case but they are reviewing it, including police body camera footage and other cellphone videos.
West said the body camera would be useless to someone from the public because they’d have to have the proper equipment to use it.
The footage from the camera is part of the “discovery” for the police department’s internal investigation and for the district attorney’s investigation, West said.
“We don’t believe citizens intended to steal anything,” he said. “There were so many people there that night, even if somebody was sweeping the floor and put it in the trash, someone picked it up. Any equipment our officers used is paid for by the taxpayers. This equipment is not inexpensive.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477
Merced police are asking anyone with any information, which includes video information regarding the hookah lounge incident, to please contact Detective-Sgt. Curt Gorman or Detective Jeff Horn at 209-385-4706. Witnesses can remain anonymous.