“Josephine” Johnny Watson says most cops in Central City don’t bother him. Some will even joke with him about his late-1990s career as a bounce rapper, and the trademark dance he would perform before he was confined to a wheelchair, the one imitated in the end zone by NFL greats like Joe Horn and Reggie Wayne.
But shortly before midnight May 26 outside Al’s Bar in Central City, one officer made him fear for his life, he said last week. That was the night when, according to Watson, a cop placed the paraplegic into a chokehold as he dangled out of his truck.
The New Orleans Police Department said it is investigating the incident, which was caught on Officer Brian Stanley’s body camera.
The memory of that night still puts fear in Watson, 39, who spent a day in the hospital and is now speaking out for the first time.
Watson, who was known as Josephine Johnny, had a notable presence among the late-1990s crop of bounce rappers who for a time helped make New Orleans the best city for hip-hop in the country.
The rapper said he even spies his flashy moves in the 2015 edition of “Madden NFL,” the industry-dominating football video game. But there is no acknowledgment that Watson invented the touchdown dance, an omission that irks him.
“I’m not getting the recognition that I’m supposed to get,” he said. “I need to get my credit where credit’s due.”
Watson told an oral history project that he thought up the dance one day when his leg went to sleep. The trick behind its success, he said, was that it was so casual and cool that even tough football players embraced it.
Watson himself qualified as a tough guy. He was arrested in 1996 on a first-degree murder charge that was refused by the District Attorney’s Office. In April 2001, police alleged that he sprayed an Uptown nightclub with bullets, a charge that prosecutors also refused.
By October 2008, Watson was living in Texas. In jail after being accused of aggravated assault of a family member, he fell in the shower. After weeks of further physical troubles, doctors finally discovered a mass growing on his back. He was diagnosed with paraplegia.
Back in New Orleans, Watson has returned to his old haunts in Central City. He uses a wheelchair to push his gaunt body around, although he said some feeling recently has returned to his legs, and he can hobble a few steps.
In early May, he said, officers stopped him while he was driving his truck near the old Magnolia housing development — he uses a cane to push the truck’s gas pedal — and tried to force him to walk the length of the vehicle, dragging his legs. He said personnel at the jail refused to admit him because of his medical problems. When he returned to his truck, he said, he found the windows broken.
In the second incident, the one that raised alarm bells for the city’s independent police monitor, Watson was in his truck across from Al’s Bar at Thalia and South Saratoga streets about 11:40 p.m. May 26. Watson said the bar’s owner had been in touch with him about resuming his music career.
Watson openly acknowledged that he was wanted on a warrant for aggravated assault. He believes, however, that police stopped him that night for essentially no reason. When officers asked him for insurance, he said, he asked them to give him 15 minutes to find the proper documents.
According to Watson, Officer Stanley did not want to give him that much time.
“I’m taking a little long or something getting out of the car, you know, so he, like, grabbed me,” Watson said. “And, vroom, my legs and my feet got stuck under the pedal and stuff and the steering wheel, so I’m hanging out of the car.”
Watson was adamant that he did not put up any physical resistance. He said that as he dangled out of the truck, Stanley “grabbed me, behind me, and grabbed me and choked me like, errr, ‘Stop resisting, stop resisting.’ ”
As the officer did so, his two colleagues at the scene called to him to back off, Watson said. Finally, Watson got into the wheelchair.
Then an ambulance came and took him to the hospital. He was not booked and believes the warrant is still outstanding.
Watson’s criminal history and a fraud conviction might make some question his account, but he is adamant that Stanley’s body-worn camera footage will vindicate him.
NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said he could not explain the officer’s version of events because of an ongoing investigation by the department’s Public Integrity Bureau. Stanley remains on reassignment.
In the weeks since the confrontation, Watson said, he has struggled to raise the money to get his truck out of the impound yard. He still holds court on a street corner in Central City, but he relies on rides from friends to get around.
Watson has been through a lot. While sitting in his wheelchair, he revealed his surgery scars and a bullet wound to prove it.
That night outside the bar, he said, he feared for his life, and his medical condition has worsened since then.
“Every cop I see now, I don’t trust them,” he said.