HOUSTON (CN) – Houston cleared police officers of wrongdoing in 99 shootings between 2009 and 2012, and must now face claims it has an “unwritten policy” of protecting officers, a federal judge ruled Monday.
Audry Releford is the father of Kenny Releford, a schizophrenic Navy veteran who was shot dead by Houston police officer Jason Rosemon in October 2012.
Releford’s October 2014 wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit against the city and Rosemon has shone an unflattering light on Houston’s police department, raising concerns about a lack of accountability for officers who resort to gunfire.
Such claims are typically dismissed because a city can’t be held liable for the constitutional violations of its employees, unless it’s found to maintain a policy that led to the violation.
According to undisputed facts in the case record, Rosemon responded to a suspicious person call on Oct. 11, 2012, in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood southeast of downtown.
The officer talked to Roger Abbs, Kenny Releford’s friend and longtime neighbor, who had called 911 after Kenny kicked in the door of an elderly neighbor’s house and got physical with three people inside, the Houston Chronicle reported.
“Officer Rosemon then drove to Kenny’s house and used the loud speaker in his patrol vehicle to announce, ‘I need to speak with Kenny. Kenny, come on out,'” the ruling said.
Rosemon claims that Kenny Releford had his left hand behind his back as he walked out of the house and toward the officer.
Rosemon shot Kenny at close range then radioed for the Houston Fire Department.
Moments later Rosemon radioed to police dispatch, “He’s standing back up,” before shooting Releford a second time. Kenny died at the hospital.
The officer claims in a dismissal motion that he is protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields officers from liability if their actions were reasonable in light of the circumstances.
Rosemon insists he fired because he couldn’t see Kenny’s left hand and thought he had a gun, and that he didn’t know Kenny was mentally ill. But “Abbs says he told 911 and Officer Rosemon that Kenny had mental health problems,” the ruling said.
Six witnesses claimed in declarations that Kenny was clearly unarmed. Five of those witnesses bolstered their stories when they later testified during depositions that the declarations were in their own words, and they were not coached by Audry Releford’s attorneys.
U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison refused to dismiss the case on Monday, finding that the question of whether Rosemon could see both of Kenny’s hands is a material fact that should be addressed during a trial, not at this early stage of the case.
Ellison also found that Releford has presented evidence that undermines Rosemon’s credibility.
“According to Officer Rosemon, Kenny ‘paused momentarily’ after being shot the first time before coming towards him again. However, the timing of Officer Rosemon’s calls to dispatch shows that at least 56 seconds, and possibly close to 70 seconds, elapsed between the first and second shots,” Ellison wrote.
Audry Releford claims in court filings that Houston’s decision not to discipline Rosemon for his son’s death adheres to its “policy or custom of finding all intentional officer-involved shootings of people to be justified,” which fosters a culture “where officers use excessive deadly force with impunity.”
He cites the fact that from 2009 to 2012, the city found that all 99 officer shootings during that time were justified, except for the three that were determined to be accidents.
More recent data are no more flattering to Houston’s finest.
“The rate of shootings by police officers was higher in Houston from 2010 to 2014 than in New York or Los Angeles, and the Houston police killed more than the Los Angeles police despite having half as many officers,” The New York Times reported in a Feb. 23 article.
Audry Releford details five other Houston police shootings in court filings that he claims prove Houston has an “unwritten policy” of condoning the poor judgment of its trigger-happy officers.
One case involved Brian Claunch, a disabled man shot dead by a Houston policeman in September 2012. The officer claimed that Claunch, who had one arm and one leg and used a wheelchair, had cornered his partner in close quarters while making stabbing motions with something shiny in his hand.
“In fact, Mr. Claunch was holding a plastic ballpoint pen,” Ellison said in the 19-page ruling.
Discovery in the case also turned up a string of messages between two police officers on the night Rosemon shot Kenny, which Audry Releford claims reveal the depths of the department’s culture of indifference to shootings.
According to the ruling, one of the officers was assigned to the department’s South Central Division and was at the shooting scene when he received this message from another officer: “Hey bro, can you guys go at least two weeks without a shooting.”
The officer on scene replied: “That’s how we roll at South Central Bra! We too hard!”
The first officer then asked: “Hahaha right…is he DOA?”
Audry Releford hired William Rathburn, former chief of the Dallas Police Department, as an expert. Rathburn’s resume includes 30 years as police officer in Dallas and Los Angeles. After he left Dallas, he became a private security consultant and helped Greece prepare for the 2004 Summer Olympics, according to the ruling.
“Mr. Rathburn opines, among other things, that the city’s finding 100 percent of shootings to be justified is ‘shocking,’ ‘signals to officers that the department is not really serious about holding officers accountable for adhering to the shooting policy,” and “communicates to officers that they can essentially shoot at will,” Ellison wrote, citing Rathburn’s deposition testimony.
Houston asked Ellison to deem Rathburn’s testimony inadmissible because he is not certified by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, an entity that regulates all Texas peace officers.
Ellison shot down the city’s challenge of Rathburn’s qualifications.
“Rathburn’s extensive experience in law enforcement and security renders him qualified to testify as an expert. Any specific shortcomings in Mr. Rathburn’s qualifications can be addressed during cross-examination and relate to the weight, rather than the admissibility, of his testimony,” the ruling states.
The city claimed that it’s not liable because the lawsuit involves one poorly trained officer and doesn’t point to an underlying policy, and argued in its defense that its officers’ training on use of force and dealing with mentally ill suspects meets or exceeds standards set by the commission.
But Ellison found that Audry Releford’s inclusion of the five other examples of Houston police shootings, each involving different officers, provided sufficient evidence to survive the city’s dismissal motion.
The city is reviewing the ruling to decide if it wants to appeal, a city spokesman said on Tuesday.
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