4 Houston cops fired after fatal shooting
The union president defended the officers and said he believed the shooting to be justified
By Nicole Hensley and Anna Bauman
HOUSTON — Nicolas Chavez, already weakened by two gunshot wounds, was on his knees and pulling a Taser toward him as four Houston Police Department officers fired a fatal barrage of bullets, according to police video of the encounter.
The officers involved in the April 21 death — identified as Sgt. Benjamin LeBlanc, officers Patrick Rubio, Omar Tapia and Luis Alvarado — were fired Thursday for what police Chief Art Acevedo said was their decision to fire a combined 21 rounds at Chavez, who was suffering from an apparent mental break and who died following their 15-minute encounter in east Houston. Acevedo determined the fatal shots were “not objectively reasonable.”
“You don’t get to shoot somebody 21 times,” Acevedo said. “Because, at the time, Mr. Chavez was at his greatest level of incapacitation.”
Prior to his death, Chavez, 27, had already been shot, stunned and was unable to get up on his own, Acevedo said. The officers, he continued, could have taken two to three steps back when he reached for the spent Taser but instead opened fire.
“I cannot defend that,” Acevedo continued.
Mayor Sylvester Turner tearfully said he had watched video of the encounter several times and for most of it, he did not fault the officers for their actions. Watching the eight seconds surrounding Chavez’s death, however, is what led him to question what happened. He concluded that Chavez did not pose an imminent threat to the police officers.
“He could have lived and could have gotten the help that he desperately needed,” Turner said.
The firing follows more than four months of scrutiny into the shooting and repeated calls for Acevedo to release the police body camera footage in that incident, as well as other fatal shootings of men of color. Protests that followed the death of longtime Houstonian George Floyd has only fueled the demand. During one such march, some rally-goers chanted, "Release the tapes."
Thunder back-dropped the lengthy news conference where Acevedo outlined what to expect from a video pieced together from 911 call excerpts and the officers’ body cameras. Acevedo warned the video would be graphic. There would be rough language, he continued. It would show Chavez’s death to anyone who wished to watch.
Mayor Sylvester Turner and Chief Acevedo media briefing on officer-involved shooting at 800 Gazin Street on April 21, 2020 WARNING: The images and information depicted may be disturbing. When an officer uses force to arrest a suspect or defend against an attack, it can be graphic, difficult to watch, and may contain strong language. Viewer discretion is advised. Viewers must sign in via a Google account and be at least an 18-year-old to watch this video. (Link will be provided after news conference) This material is provided as part of the department’s commitment to transparency. The material has been redacted in an effort to avoid the release of information made confidential by Texas law. A note on Body Worn Cameras (BWC): HPD cameras are worn in the middle of the officer’s chest. As a result, their view may be blocked. They also do not show events that occur to the side or behind the officer. Additionally, there is a two-minute lag between when a BWC is activated and the capturing of audio. Finally, as you watch BWC videos, you will periodically hear a buzzing sound. This sound is an audible reminder that the BWC is recording.Posted by Houston Police Department on Thursday, September 10, 2020
The audio and video was as follows:
Concerned citizens first reported seeing a distraught man throwing himself in front of cars along Interstate 10 near Lockwood Street and jumping fences in the Denver Harbor neighborhood. One caller said he had what appeared to be a “metal tube” in his hand. He was bleeding and ranting.
Those calls led police to Chavez, who could be seen frantically huddled under a street light near the 800 block of Gavin Street. Video from Sgt. LeBlanc’s camera show that he ordered the officers to get their Tasers out and assured Chavez from a distance that they were there to help. Minutes went by as the officers urged Chavez to calm down.
“I’m a MHMRA patient and I feel like dying,” Chavez is heard crying out, using an old acronym for the Harris Center mental health clinic.
“That’s fine,” another officer told him. “Have a seat.”
But Chavez paced the parking lot instead, at times stumbling, flailing and stabbing himself with what officers believed was a knife. LeBlanc fired two bean bag rounds at Chavez and Alvarado followed with the Taser. Neither appeared to have an effect and Chavez began walking toward the officers with the metal object.
LeBlanc and another officer, Kevin Nguyen, fired a combined three shots as Chavez approached him and a constable’s deputy. Acevedo said he found only that instance in the 24 total rounds fired to be reasonable.
The officers then flocked to Chavez to render medical aid and detain him but he rolled over with blood on his hands and spouted profanities at them. The officers backed up. During the commotion, an officer dropped her used Taser to prevent others from tripping on the wires, the chief explained. Several more minutes passed — which were edited out of what police made public — as Chavez took refuge in a ditch. Officers urged him to drop the knife.
“Kill me,” Chavez pleaded.
Another officer replied, “You’re bleeding out, so let me help you.”
Without warning, Chavez leaped out of the ditch and an officer shot at him with more bean bag projectiles. He rolled onto his knees and faced off with the officers. He chucked the piece of metal at the officers and it landed nearby with a metallic ring.
After a moment, Chavez spotted the wire from the dropped Taser and began to drag the device toward him. The next round of gunfire erupted as Chavez finally reached the Taser, which was missing both cartridges. LeBlanc, an 11-year veteran of the agency, fired twice, while Tapio and Ruio — both with HPD for a year — each fired six times. Alvarado fired seven shots.
In an interview with Internal Affairs, LeBlanc said he watched Chavez grab the Taser with a “shooting grip” and feared he would shoot him.
“He never looks at it to shoot himself. He looks directly at me,” LeBlanc said, according to Houston police records. “At that moment, I make the decision to fire my duty weapon — my pistol at him two more times to end that threat.”
The internal review also found that LeBlanc was standing outside the range of a Taser even if it had been armed, documents state.
Chavez was rushed to a hospital but did not survive. A toxicology report later found traces of meth and alcohol in Chavez’s body at the time of his death.
The four officers have since filed appeals to their firing, Acevedo said during the news conference. During a Sept. 2 meeting with police command staff, the four officers declined to address their actions and read from a statement saying they believed they had acted reasonably. Another officer will likely face an unspecified disciplinary action, Acevedo added.
Following the firings, Chavez’s mother, Leantha Chavez, said she was “elated” but was not satisfied. She said she believes the officers should next be charged with a crime.
“It doesn’t change how my heart feels,” she said in a Zoom call with the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice. “It’s very hard to be happy and sad about something so tragic. It’s a weird feeling. You don’t know whether to be up or to be down.”
The video, she continued, “speaks for itself.”
Unseen moments included that her son spent several minutes on his stomach in the ditch.
“Minutes went by — they could have taken him then. They could have done a lot of things, and that’s why I think Acevedo did what he did in firing those officers,” she said.
In a statement, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said she assured Chavez’s mother, father and widow that the police shooting would undergo a review by their Civil Rights Division prosecutors. Charges would then be depending on a grand jury who will determine whether the officers were justified or committed a crime.
At an earlier news conference, Houston Police Officers Union President Joe Gamaldi defended the officers and said he believed the shooting to be justified. The officers, he said, attempted to de-escalate the encounter, used non-lethal weapons and gave verbal commands before discharging their firearms.
“It was clear when viewing the video that these officers did not want to shoot Mr. Chavez and did everything in their power not to,” Gamaldi said.
Doug Griffith, HPOU vice president, said the officers could not have known the dropped Taser was empty. The officer who dropped the Taser did not say it was empty, he continued.
Acevedo said that officer did the right thing by not firing her weapon.
Union officials argue the firing is at odds with how members of HPD’s Administrative Discipline Committee — six out of 10 members who suggested no discipline — and an Independent Police Oversight Board panel viewed the shooting.
Police showed city council members the video Thursday morning and afterward, councilman Robert Gallegos called it “heart-wrenching” to watch.
“We should be sending more mental health professionals to a psychiatric crisis, not just armed law enforcement officers,” Gallegos said in a statement. “The police alone are not the right people to intervene in psychological crises. It is not the right way to enhance public safety and will not lead to good results.”
Chavez is among eight people to have been killed in 2020 by Houston police officers. The eight men, including Chavez, have been identified as Christopher Aguirre, 28; Adrian Medearis, 48; Rayshard Scales, 30; Randy Lewis, 38; Joe Castillanos, 38; Ashton Broussard, 30; and Julius Kehyei, 29.
Kehyei was most recently killed Aug. 26 by a SWAT officer after he exchanged gunfire with a civilian driver in Montrose and then shot at several police officers, authorities said.
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