HOUSTON (AP) — Four Houston police officers have been terminated after an internal investigation determined they did not use reasonable force when they fired their weapons 21 times at a man who had been experiencing a mental health crisis, killing him in April after he was already injured and on the ground, the city’s police chief announced Thursday.
During a news conference, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo presented video footage from body cameras that showed 27-year-old Nicolas Chavez, who had already been shot and was bleeding, kneeling on the ground and grabbing a stun gun that had been dropped when the four officers shot him.
Acevedo said although Chavez had picked up the stun gun, the officers had plenty of time to back up and take cover. Investigators later determined the stun gun Chavez grabbed was empty as both of its cartridges had been discharged. The officers indicated they weren’t aware it was empty at the time of the shooting, Acevedo said.
Chavez was already injured, having been hit by gunfire earlier in his standoff with police. Officers had also fired bean bag rounds and stun guns at him before he was killed, Acevedo said.
“Quite frankly, its inexplicable to me when they had plenty of opportunity to back up and continue to be doing what they were doing for them to stay the line and shoot a man 21 times,” Acevedo said. “I cannot defend that.” Acevedo said Chavez was not a threat to the 28 officers who were at the scene.
An autopsy showed that Chavez had 29 total entry and exit wounds, many the result of bullet fragments created when rounds hit the pavement and broke apart. It also showed he had methamphetamine, amphetamine and ethanol in his system.
Leaders with the Houston Police Officers’ Union denounced the firings, saying the officers followed their training and tried to de-escalate the situation but were forced to shoot Chavez when he pointed the stun gun at them.
“It was clear … these officers did not want to shoot Mr. Chavez and did everything in their power not to,” said union president Joe Gamaldi.
Leantha Chavez, Nicolas Chavez’s mother, said she was pleased that the officers had been fired.
“However, it doesn’t change how my heart feels. It’s very hard to be happy and sad about something so tragic,” she said. “Now it’s time to move on to the next step, which is charging them.”
Leantha Chavez has been one of many people who attended protests earlier this year calling on authorities to take action in her son’s shooting.
His shooting is still being investigated by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and was set to later be presented to a grand jury.
“I met with the mother, father and wife of Nicolas Chavez to listen to their concerns and personally assure them that our Civil Rights Division prosecutors will conduct a thorough, independent review of all the evidence in his death,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement.
Those fired were identified as: Officer Patrick Rubio, who had been with the department since May 2018; Officer Luis Alvarado, with the department since March 2019; Officer Omar Tapia, with the department since March 2019; and Sgt. Benjamin LeBlanc, with the department since October 2008.
Before body camera footage was released on Thursday, cellphone video of the shooting taken by a bystander had been circulated widely online in the week after the April 21 shooting.
Chavez’s shooting followed a 15-minute confrontation with police. Officers were responding to a call about a possibly suicidal man who was running in and out of traffic.
Chavez’s family has said he had a history of mental illness.
In a video presentation of the body camera footage that was narrated by Acevedo, portions of 911 calls made the night of Chavez’s shooting can be heard where callers tell operators that a man is running around and “having a mental breakdown.”
In the video footage, officers can be heard telling Chavez, “Hey buddy, hey bud, we’re here to help you, man” and “just relax. No one is shooting” and “we’re trying to help you man.”
Chavez, who can be heard cursing at officers, could be seen wildly flailing his arms and legs. Officers fired bean bag rounds from shotguns at Chavez and deployed their stun guns, but it had little affect on him.
At one point in the video, an officer said Chavez had a knife. Officers told him to put it down. Investigators later determined that Chavez had a piece of metal that he used to cut himself.
Before Chavez was fatally shot, two officers had fired three times at him when Chavez had come toward officers, injuring him. Acevedo said those discharges of officer weapons were justified.
“The action being taken today does say in our city, we hold everyone accountable,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Gamaldi said the fired officers used every non-lethal option available to them to subdue Chavez, but that he refused to surrender.
“These officers were distraught over having to take a life out there,” said Doug Griffith, the union’s first vice president.
While Griffith said the shooting was found to be justified by the city’s independent police oversight board, Acevedo disputed that claim. Acevedo declined to comment further, citing confidentiality.
Chavez’s shooting took place about a month before George Floyd died in Minneapolis after an officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly eight minutes. Floyd’s death sparked protests worldwide, including in Floyd’s hometown of Houston, against racial injustice and police brutality.
The police union suggested the firings in Chavez’s case were the result of political pressure following the marches for police reform.
Chavez’s death was the first of six fatal shootings involving Houston police over several weeks in April and May.
Activists in Houston had earlier called on Acevedo to release body camera footage from Chavez’s shooting as well as the other recent ones.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70
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