Federal and state prosecutors have dropped all criminal charges against a former Anchorage police officer accused of punching, kicking and unlawfully arresting a man in exchange for the promise he won’t seek a law enforcement job again.
Cornelius Aaron Pettus, in a 2019 incident partly captured on camera, was accused of assaulting Samuel Allen, then 49, outside Allen’s home after serving him a citation for riding a bicycle without lights, according to court documents filed in the case.
The charges against Pettus, which ranged from misdemeanor assault to civil rights violations and falsification of records during a federal investigation, were dismissed by agreements reached in both state and federal cases.
Under the dismissal agreements, Pettus was required to resign from the Anchorage Police Department, surrender his law enforcement certification, and agree not to seek employment in the field in any state. He resigned in June.
Another Anchorage police officer present at the encounter, Deorman Stout, was indicted on a charge of tampering with public records. According to the indictment, Stout “made a false entry in or falsely altered” a police report related to the encounter with Allen. The charge against Stout was also dismissed in exchange for his cooperation on the case, prosecutors say. He is still an officer at the department, an APD spokeswoman said.
A separate civil lawsuit involving Pettus is still active.
Allen filed that lawsuit against Pettus, Stout and the municipality in 2021. The municipality paid $187,500 to be dismissed from that suit, according to information obtained through a public records request. Stout was also dismissed from the civil case.
The civil litigation against Pettus isn’t expected to go to trial until next year at the soonest due to delays from the criminal proceedings, according to an attorney involved in the civil case.
Pettus attempted to stop Allen on the evening of Sept. 30, 2019, because he was riding his bicycle at night without lights, according to a summary of police reports written by Jack McKenna, at the time the state’s chief assistant attorney general.
Allen swore at Pettus and then rode away from him on the bicycle, the summary said. Allen frequently posted videos of his interactions with police online. Officials said at the time that he was familiar to some officers.
When Pettus and Stout went to Allen’s house later that night to serve him citations related to the encounter, Allen followed the officers to their cars and taunted them, according to the summary.
Allen was livestreaming the encounter to YouTube from his phone. The video is no longer available online.
Pettus grabbed the phone from Allen, according to the charges. The dashboard camera installed on Pettus’ patrol vehicle captured him punching Allen in the jaw and then kicking him, the summary said. The men moved out of view of the camera and at some point Pettus deployed his pepper spray on Allen, it said.
Stout watched the encounter unfold and helped Pettus put Allen in handcuffs, according to the charges.
Allen was originally arrested on charges of assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Those charges were later dismissed.
The police department launched a use-of-force investigation into the encounter, per department policy, and found that Pettus’ account of the events varied from what was seen on video, according to the charges.
Pettus was initially charged in October 2019 with state counts of misdemeanor assault.
He and Stout were indicted in July 2020 on additional charges, including felony tampering with public records and misdemeanor interference with constitutional rights. Pettus was indicted in federal court in October 2020 on charges of deprivation of civil rights and falsification of records during a federal investigation.
Former APD chief Justin Doll in a statement issued after the July 2020 indictment said the officers failed the community and disappointed the department. Pettus and Stout were both placed on unpaid administrative leave following the indictment. Pettus had been on paid leave for roughly nine months prior. He remained on unpaid leave until he resigned.
The charges against Pettus were formally dismissed in December.
Prior excessive force complaints
Pettus had previously violated APD policy by using excessive force, according to motions filed in the federal case that revealed details about the internal investigations that are normally considered confidential under state law.
In 2018, Pettus and other officers arrested a woman suspected of shoplifting. The woman resisted arrest and refused to straighten her legs as officers tried to load her into Pettus’ patrol car and he was seen on dashboard camera footage kicking her two times, the motion said.
In 2019, roughly a month before the encounter with Allen, Pettus chased a man suspected to have damaged vehicles, the motion said. While the man was running from him, Pettus tried to use a stun gun on him but missed, the motion said.
In both instances, Pettus used excessive force and violated the police department’s policy, the motions said.
In the second incident, the motion said Pettus was served with a complaint notifying him about an allegation of excessive force, but officials did not serve him with paperwork detailing the findings of the investigation. The Internal Affairs team found that he had violated policy, but Pettus was not disciplined, the motion said. Neither of the situations resulted in criminal charges.
‘He gave up his profession’
Allen, the man at the center of the criminal cases against Pettus, is upset the charges were dismissed, said his attorney Jeff Barber, who is also representing Allen in the civil lawsuit. Allen declined to comment for this story because of the ongoing lawsuit, Barber said.
Pettus’ attorney, Clint Campion, said the former officer suffered the consequence of losing his livelihood as the result of the case. His resignation from the police department also prevented the municipality from having to potentially initiate a time-consuming grievance termination process, he said.
“Mr. Pettus obviously didn’t have to face trial or plead guilty to any criminal offenses, but it was a significant loss to him,” said Campion, a former state prosecutor and Anchorage district attorney. “He’d been a law enforcement officer for a long time … So he gave up his profession.”
Pettus, 35, grew up in a law enforcement family, Campion said. He worked as a community service officer at the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office before joining APD in 2015.
A national expert on law enforcement and crime said assault is the most common criminal charge against police officers.
It can be difficult to convict an officer for violence-related crimes while on-duty, however, because the job is inherently violent and there are various levels of force and justification, according to Bowling Green State University criminal justice professor Dr. Philip Stinson, who studies police crime, corruption and misconduct.
Such cases can lead to an array of outcomes and dismissal is not uncommon, Stinson said.
State Deputy Attorney General John Skidmore said he considers the agreement reached in Pettus’ case to be a successful prosecution. Federal and state prosecutors worked together to reach the same agreement, he said.
One of the priorities in a case like this is making sure an officer who has engaged in excessive force or misconduct will not work in law enforcement going forward, Skidmore said.
A felony conviction would have prevented Pettus from working as a police officer in Alaska. State law prohibits departments from hiring people convicted of felonies or a “misdemeanor crime of dishonesty, moral turpitude or other crime resulting in serious physical injury to another within the preceding 10 years.”
But laws about if and what kind of criminal convictions bar someone from being a law enforcement officer vary from state to state. As part of this agreement, Pettus promised not to seek employment as a law enforcement officer anywhere in the country and to enter his name into a national database that tracks decertification and officer misconduct.
Most criminal cases resolve by plea agreements, often with a defendant pleading to a lesser charge than they originally faced. Skidmore said the pandemic also factored into the agreement to dismiss. Trial suspensions resulted in a significant backlog of criminal cases and Skidmore said judges were less likely to impose jail sentences.
“We, as a state, certainly put significant resources into pursuing prosecution of Mr. Pettus and it was not a decision that we entered into lightly,” he said, “but it was a decision that at the time, under those circumstances, seemed to be the right one.”