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Daniel Rocha's Last Night: Reconstruction, Recommendations, Reprimands

Chief Knee and APD investigators differ over whether Schroeder's shot was justified

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Dec. 2, 2005

Daniel Rocha's mother, Daniela, with her lawyer Bobby Taylor testifying before a meeting of the Office of the Police Monitor's Citizen Review Panel, as shown on the city of Austin's Channel 6<br>Photo courtesy City of Austin/Diane Weidenkopf
Daniel Rocha's mother, Daniela, with her lawyer Bobby Taylor testifying before a meeting of the Office of the Police Monitor's Citizen Review Panel, as shown on the city of Austin's Channel 6
Photo courtesy City of Austin/Diane Weidenkopf

In the moments before Austin Police Officer Julie Schroeder fired the 9mm round that killed 18-year-old Daniel Rocha, the seven-year veteran officer was scared. She'd just extricated herself from a "close," chest-to-chest struggle with Rocha – who she said was clearly trying to flee from officers to avoid being arrested – when Rocha suddenly turned toward Sergeant Don Doyle, who had fallen (or was pushed) on the ground. "There's no question in my mind he's going for … Doyle," Schroeder said during an Aug. 26 interview with APD Internal Affairs investigators. "Because at that point, I felt like [Rocha] could've chosen other directions to go, but he's going for Sergeant Doyle who is on the ground," she continued. "So I'm grabbing [for my Taser, and the] Taser is gone, and I remember this clearly, like pawing [at my vest] like, 'Oh my God! My Taser is gone.'" As Schroeder looked toward Rocha, she realized it wouldn't be "tough" now for Rocha to use her less-than-lethal electroshock weapon to incapacitate Doyle, she told IA. "I'm scared for … Doyle's life," she said. After reaching for her missing weapon four times, Schroeder pulled her gun, pointing it toward Rocha's white shirt, and pulled the trigger. "Boom! One shot," she said. And Rocha was dead.

Although APD Chief Stan Knee reviewed Schroeder's statements to IA – along with the rest of the 1,000-plus-page investigative file – and determined that Schroeder's use of deadly force against Rocha the evening of June 9 violated department policy and warranted her termination from the force (which he did on Nov. 18), IA detectives concluded otherwise, recommending to Knee that the allegation be "administratively closed," because Schroeder's actions fell within the limits of APD policy.

While Knee does have the final say on all things disciplinary, his decision to reject the IA findings and fire Schroeder has set off a firestorm of controversy – sparking allegations that Knee's decision was based on political pressure, from the Office of the Police Monitor or perhaps from officials inside City Hall, rather than on an impartial review of the investigative facts – and has prompted the Austin Police Association to call for Knee's job.

In his 12-page disciplinary memo, Knee said he'd found that the "deadly force encounter" with Rocha was "in my opinion … avoidable. Not only did … Schroeder use deadly force when it was not appropriate to do so, she needlessly jeopardized the life of another officer." He concluded that Schroeder should've been able to tell whether Rocha actually had her Taser and that, if she couldn't, she might also not have been able to tell whether she was shooting at Rocha and not at Doyle – much the same conclusion reached last month by the Citizen Review Panel, which also recommended that Schroeder be fired. "The bullet that struck Daniel Rocha could have easily passed through his body, striking … Doyle," Knee wrote.

In contrast, IA investigators concluded that Schroeder's use of deadly force was, in fact, understandable and within policy; they also noted that a Travis Co. grand jury had already declined to indict Schroeder for her actions. It was clear from the evidence, investigators said, that Schroeder and Doyle had been in an "intense" struggle with Rocha in the minutes leading up to his death. Doyle told investigators that he "felt that … Schroeder made the decision to utilize deadly force against … Rocha to save his [Doyle's] life," according to an IA summary. "There had already been an intense struggle to place Rocha under arrest, in which Rocha was actively resisting and/or attempting to flee," IA investigators wrote. "Officer Schroeder felt for her Taser to use it against Rocha, but it was not there." Given that, "seconds before … Rocha had been grabbing at … Schroeder's waist and vest area it was reasonable to believe Rocha was attempting to, or had obtained Schroeder's Taser or other weapons." Further, investigators noted that Rocha was in a "tactically superior" position over Doyle, which placed Doyle at risk of having his gun taken and used on either him or Schroeder. "This would've been an even greater concern for Officer Schroeder … who is much smaller in stature than … Doyle," investigators wrote. If Schroeder had been on the ground, they concluded, her use of deadly force would have been justified. "Since Officer Schroeder would have been justified in using deadly force to protect herself under these circumstances, she was justified in using deadly force to protect a third person, Sergeant Doyle." Schroeder is appealing her termination; an independent arbitrator will hear the case early next year.

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