A federal watchdog quietly cleared William Figueroa of wrongdoing in the 2016 incident, to the chagrin of press advocates who said the use of force was excessive and disturbing.
During a presidential campaign that took acrimony with the press to unprecedented heights, the violent encounter between a Secret Service agent and a photographer at a Donald Trump rally at Radford University in southwest Virginia in February 2016 still manages to stand apart.
Viral videos of the confrontation show that as Time magazine photographer Christopher Morris stepped out of a so-called press pen to snap pictures of Black Lives Matter demonstrators, Secret Service agent William Figueroa grabbed Morris by the neck, lifted him and threw him onto a table.
After the pro-wrestling-style “choke slam,” Morris fell to the ground, could be seen kicking at Figueroa and briefly put his hand on the agent’s throat in what appeared to be an outraged reenactment of the earlier takedown.
Now, a Department of Homeland Security inspector general report and other documents obtained exclusively by POLITICO show that federal investigators cleared the agent of any wrongdoing in the episode, finding his actions to have been “reasonable.”
Press advocates and Morris himself blasted that finding, contending that the body slam was an excessive use of force and that claims that the agent was in any real danger from the veteran photographer are absurd.
The newly released records and interviews with witnesses also reveal other previously undisclosed aspects about the jarring altercation and its aftermath, including:
— Federal prosecutors considered whether to bring criminal charges against Morris and Figueroa, but decided not to file a case against either man.
— Figueroa, the agent who slammed Morris, had never been assigned to guard the press before, aside from briefly filling in for a colleague on one occasion.
— Although Time issued a statement at the time expressing concern about the episode and the agent’s response, Morris declined to speak with investigators — on advice from a high-powered lawyer hired by the magazine.
— A particular focus of the probe was whether Figueroa sought to choke Morris. The agent denied any intention of doing so. Investigators said that if the agent ended up holding the photographer by the throat, it was an accident.
— Among the factors the report cited as justifying the decision to grab Morris and slam him onto a table was the possibility that the photographer might use his camera as a weapon.
— The veteran photographer was not even assigned to cover the rally, but was simply there to catch a ride to the campaign plane to take behind-the-scenes shots of Trump to accompany a Time interview with the candidate. After the altercation, the interview was abruptly canceled.
During a probe that spanned nearly two years, investigators from the Department of Homeland Security Office of inspector general consulted with a handful of witnesses and interviewed law enforcement training personnel before concluding that the body slam that stunned many observers was a legitimate use of force to resolve a potentially dangerous situation.
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