HOUSTON (CN) – Houston’s City Council on Wednesday approved a $1.2 million settlement with the family of a black man fatally shot by a police officer, resolving litigation that exposed a pattern of cops being absolved by internal affairs investigations for shooting unarmed people.
Juventino Castro was on high alert sitting in his car in his HPD uniform in a northwest Houston strip mall where he was moonlighting as a security guard the night of Jan. 16, 2014.
There had been eight armed robberies in the area the previous two days with witnesses describing the culprit as a black man wearing a hoodie and wielding a handgun. Most of the robberies had occurred between 7 and 9 p.m.
Castro’s eyes narrowed when Jordan Baker, a 26-year-old college student and father of a young son, wearing a hoodie, flip-flops and pajama pants, rode his bike into the parking lot at 8:40 p.m.
Baker rode straight towards Castro’s car until he saw the officer sitting in it in his uniform. Seemingly startled, he turned around and rode away fast, according to the case record.
Castro drove up to Baker then tried to detain him. Baker balked, leading to a scuffle that left Baker with cuts and scrapes all over his body, Janet Baker said in a December 2015 wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit she filed for her son’s estate and on behalf of his son.
Baker’s sweatshirt came off in the scrum and he ran away shirtless from Castro to the back of the strip mall. Moments later Castro fatally shot Baker in the torso at close range, handcuffed him and called 911.
Castro and Houston claimed Baker had charged at the officer in a crouch while digging into his waistband before Castro opened fire. Castro told the same story to a grand jury that declined to indict him in 2015.
Janet Baker said in her lawsuit that her son had tripped and was getting up to run away when Castro shot him.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Johnson whittled down some of the mother’s claims in an August 2018 order, but due to the conflicting stories about the shooting, she found a jury should make the call on the family’s claims of wrongful death and excessive force against Castro and municipal liability against the city.
Baker’s attorney David Owens with Loevy & Loevy of Chicago hired an expert whose analysis of Houston police shootings from 2009 to 2014 uncovered a disturbing trend: HPD’s internal affairs investigations deemed all 194 officer shootings of civilians during that time justified, including 81 where the people were unarmed.
Refusing to dismiss the municipal liability claim, Johnson wrote, “A jury could reasonably find that defendant city had an unofficial policy and custom of turning a blind eye to its officers’ excessive uses of force.”
Owens said HPD deemed shootings justified even when the officer was drunk, and he believes the city agreed to the $1.2 million settlement because the statistics are damning.
“What that does is shows a culture in which officers can shoot first and ask questions, actually not later but never, because the city of Houston did not ever conduct any interviews of officers after shootings … which is an outlier in the country,” Owens said Wednesday in a phone interview.
The first person Castro talked to after shooting Baker was his attorney. Accompanied by HPD homicide detectives and crime-scene investigation officers, Harris County prosecutors and his attorney, Castro then did a “walk-through” of the scene in which he gave the group a blow-by-blow of the shooting and the events leading up to it.
Per its custom, HPD’s internal affairs division did not do a live recorded interview of Castro about the incident. It just gave him a set of questions and 48 hours to answer them before clearing him of wrongdoing.
In contrast, at the time HPD did film interviews of private citizens who had shot people for its investigations.
Owens said Houston has not formally agreed to any policy changes because of the lawsuit, but the city has stated it has stepped up police de-escalation training.
The city’s legal department offered few details about the decision to settle.
“The settlement, reached after court-ordered mediation, reflects all parties’ election to prudently resolve disputed claims,” it said in a statement.