Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo has fired an officer who violated APD policies on use of force during a May encounter that began as a routine traffic stop and ended with a shot fired – but with no one shot.
Austin Police Officer Justin Boehm was listening to KLBJ-FM's Dudley and Bob Morning Show just before 8 am on the morning of May 8, waiting for the light at East 12th Street and Airport Boulevard to turn green when the small Nissan pickup truck in front of him began moving forward, driving through the still-red light. Perhaps confused by a separate signal aimed at drivers in the turn lane, which lights several seconds before a separate through-lane light changes color, the driver nonetheless passed safely through the intersection, followed closely by Boehm, who quickly activated his patrol car's overhead lights.
The driver of the pickup truck, later identified as 54-year-old James Barton, pulled quickly to the side of the road, but did not stay seated. Instead, Barton exited his vehicle and moved toward Boehm while reaching into his pants, according to dash-cam video of the incident. Almost instantly, Boehm can be heard getting out of the car and yelling "Stay in the car!" at Barton; four seconds after Barton exited the vehicle, Boehm fired a single shot at Barton, while again yelling at him to stay in the car. Boehm missed his target.
It was Boehm's handling of the incident that on Sept. 27 prompted Chief Art Acevedo to terminate the Boehm's employment. "Officer Boehm's belief that deadly force was justified is not objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting him," Acevedo wrote in a disciplinary memo released today. "Boehm's stated reasons for his use of deadly force were nothing more than the actions taken by a driver during a routine traffic stop."
Under questioning by Internal Affairs, Boehm said that he "intentionally fired his weapon" at Barton because he believed that Barton was reaching for a weapon while walking toward his patrol car. Boehm was actually reaching for a wallet, which he pulled from his right hip pocket while walking toward the officer. Boehm described Barton's running of the light at Airport Blvd. as "blatant" and said that he considered Barton's movements once he pulled over to the side of the road as "'odd' and 'furtive,'" according to the memo. Barton told IA that after pulling over he set the emergency brake and put down his cell phone before exiting the car, which he said he thought he was "supposed to do when pulled over by police," reads the memo. "Video, audio and testimonial evidence establish that there was no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to Officer Boehm at the time that he discharged his weapon," Acevedo concluded.
In reacting as he did, Boehm violated the department's "response to resistance" policy and that covering how an officer determines the "objective reasonableness" of a use of force, as well as a policy covering the discharging of firearms. "Of greatest concern is...Boehm's decision to discharge his weapon despite the fact that the driver's actions were consistent with a driver pulling out his identification, and not consistent with a person drawing a weapon," Acevedo wrote. "Boehm's violations of APD policies not only endangered the driver but posed a potential risk of injury to other drivers and citizens in the area. Of equal concern to me is the fact that...Boehm's escalation of a routine traffic stop into a use of deadly force was not objectively reasonable under the facts and circumstances." Finally, he wrote, Boehm's use of force "demonstrates an inability to accurately and effectively assess evolving situations, and establishes that [he] cannot continue to serve" as an APD officer.
Boehm's actions were previously considered by a Travis County grand jury, which declined to indict him on any criminal charges in connection with the incident.
Boehm has until Oct. 10 to file an appeal of his termination, which can be considered by either the Civil Service Commission or by an independent arbitrator.
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