The Sanctity of All Life?

Notes on David Joseph's death

“We do value the sanctity of all life here at the department. So yesterday’s events, as with all of our officer-involved shootings, are tragedies that we look to avoid when possible.”

Activists Sister Christina Muhammad, Meme Styles, and Juanita Spears stand outside of City Hall, in front of assembled protesters. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

These are the words of Austin Police Chief of Staff Brian Manley from the first press conference after the shooting of 17-year-old David Joseph on Monday, Feb. 8. As the Chronicle previously reported, Joseph was naked and unarmed when he was killed. With all due respect to Chief Manley, this particular shooting is no simple tragedy, and should not be grouped along with other “officer-involved shootings” as if created equal.

At a press conference Thursday, Feb. 11, Chief Art Acevedo announced something of an informal coalition – which included activists from NAACP, Black Lives Matter, Austin Justice Coalition, and Measure ATX – on stage for a make-nice, "we’re in this together" affair, that felt forced and uncomfortable. Perhaps well-meaning, Acevedo is working against decades of bad history, from Austin and beyond.

The chief provided an updated timeline of the events preceding Joseph's death that included multiple calls on Monday to 911, from 6:30am to 9:57am. However, for some reason, Acevedo decided to begin the timeline with a Sunday-morning incident, where apparently, according to witnesses, Joseph attempted and failed to convince a woman to come with him to some unknown location. The chief said observers claimed Joseph avoided a possible altercation with two bystanders witnessing the event, and left the scene while saying, “watch yourself.” The woman would make a 911 call to report a suspicious person the following day – at 9:24am – but could not verify it was Joseph.

At 9:58am Monday, Officer Geoffrey Freeman was called over to an apartment complex on Yager Lane. A witness told Freeman she saw a man chasing another man through the complex. The same woman called 911 again at 10:22, reporting a naked male jumped out of a tree line and in front of her vehicle.

The police dispatcher informed Freeman that the man was naked and that no weapons were reported to be involved. Freeman called for police assistance. Freeman found a naked 17-year-old David Joseph at the 12000 block of Nature’s Bend at around 10:30am, after which – says Freeman – a list of commands were given. The officer says Joseph did not respond, and immediately charged at him, requiring him to fire his gun.

Manley stated that multiple investigation efforts, by the District Attorney’s office and Special Investigations, are underway, along with a full autopsy. Earlier in the day, at a peaceful City Hall protest organized by Austin Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter, Mayor Steve Adler proclaimed that “black lives matter,” and also accepted (and, surprisingly, read) a list of demands presented to him by Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition. He called for alacrity by investigators and more policy review, in front of a cascade of protesters.

“All of us are going to be demanding speed for that initial investigation, and then we need to move forward. The question of policy and procedure is real important. We need to have a review and audit of the policies that we have in this city, both with respect to mental health responses, and also with respect to our use of force.”

Meme Styles of Measure ATX, which aims for more quantifiable approaches to solutions, voiced her thoughts on the problem at hand. “It doesn't matter what happened. In this very specific circumstance, it showed that there is a systemic problem. We already knew that our lives did not have that much value. But to have a person that is being reported as naked, as 17 years old, that’s that young, thin - he's not a big huge guy. [And] to be intimidated by a child, [it] just really demonstrated that we have an issue that needs to be addressed, that there has to be change.”

Currently, there’s no way to encapsulate, with full comprehension, what happened that Monday morning. Information is still being gathered and fit together. However, we have more than enough information required to ask some immediate and pertinent questions.

First, working backward, Acevedo’s decision to inform the public about Sunday’s non-altercation was interesting, at best. Unless it is found that Joseph was chasing one of the two bystanders from Sunday, this information is tangential. Even more concerning is that it instantly recasts Joseph as a stereotypically base womanizer and delinquent – from the start of this new timeline – and could alter public perception of the teen. Though never connected, except by the 911 calls by the woman involved, somehow Sunday’s almost-altercation is inferred to have a loose connection to Joseph's demise.

There are several more substantial questions as to how a young, naked, and unarmed person could be killed in broad daylight. Officers are equipped with various weapons, such as pepper spray and Tasers – neither of which Freeman chose to utilize. Freeman claims Joseph was aggressive, and let’s assume for the sake of argument that Joseph was. On what is known today, it would be exceedingly difficult to see how an experienced officer would feel endangerment from a weaponless, naked, and narrowly built teen – likely not much larger than his listed stats of 6-feet 157 lbs as a sophomore on his high school’s varsity football team. Even if there is proof of Joseph being under the influence, via a toxicology reports, shooting him shouldn’t have been the knee-jerk reaction.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday spoke with the Austin American-Statesman, saying that the public should not be quick to crucify Freeman for his weapon choice. For comparison, Casaday pointed to a 2005 video of a female police officer – who’d already employed her Taser – being subsequently assaulted by an enraged man, who was demonstrably larger than Joseph, even in grainy dashcam video.

Training has been called into question. Yet Freeman is a 10-year veteran, with numerous commendations. He placed “highly effective” to “excellent” in every category of his 2013-14 annual evaluation, released after a Freedom of Information Act request by the Chronicle’s Chase Hoffberger. By all measures, per the two recent evaluations, Geoffrey Freeman is a responsible and upstanding police officer. The fact that Joseph was killed, by such an experienced officer, is actually more curious, under the circumstances. One would assume Freeman has seen his portion of serious situations, that he’s turned every corner and page.

There’s a so-called “21-Foot Rule,” developed in 1983 by Lt. John Tueller of the Salt Lake City Police Department, where the general concept – there are numerous parameter changes that could upset Tueller’s ideal scenario – is maintaining roughly 20 feet between you, the officer, and the assailant. However, Tueller’s theoretical assailant wields a weapon of some sort, and is presumably clothed – neither of which applied to Joseph.

No crime had been committed, and no immediate danger realized – unless Freeman created potential jeopardy for himself, by neglecting protocols. The event happened within seconds, suggesting close proximity. In essence, according to Freeman’s statement and actions, Joseph ostensibly dictated terms of engagement. Freeman approached Joseph, who then closed the remaining distance. That an experienced officer was never in control – which likely could have been achieved by maintaining adequate spacing from the visibly disturbed teen – is immensely troubling.

Worsening matters is the common sense factor. Once first contact was made, and with Joseph verbally unresponsive, why wasn’t Austin or Travis County Mental Health called in for assistance? Presumably under some mental duress, Joseph was in full view of the officer, who could have declined direct engagement – given his sight of the teen’s highly erratic behavior – or put himself behind his vehicle. Joseph posed no danger to Freeman, until he was close enough for Freeman to believe discharging his weapon – supposedly within seconds – would save his own life.

This wasn’t a case of regrettable circumstances beyond Freeman’s control. The current information (and, of course, more information may come to light) suggests, like a mange-ridden and rabid dog, a teen was put down out of primal fear, of real or perceived danger. Freeman, and others, will likely contend a naked Joseph’s crazed look and show of seemingly inescapable force necessitated use of force in equal balance – furthering the racist superhuman negro stereotype, found in other, similar shootings.

“After we die are we dead forever?” asked Joseph contemplatively, about a month ago on Twitter. It’s an interesting question, as it’s based on supposition and questioning of the life concept – that we are all alive, that we were supposed to be living, and that we perhaps continue on ever after, or don’t. It’s a very human question to ponder, where in which lies the eternal rub being found in these “officer-related shootings,” particularly those involving African-Americans.

Did Officer Geoffrey Freeman ever see Joseph as “alive,” as a distinct human being? Regardless of the conclusions of the many investigations happening today and in the coming weeks and months, Freeman's actions suggest he did not see Joseph as a person deserving of empathy.

Given what we know, what are the fixes? Community engagement, policy restructuring, and additional training are only piecemeal solutions within the larger context. Styles sees instant value in the mayor stepping forward, and sidestepping the mistakes of, say, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. “Austin, unfortunately under these circumstances, we're going to take a lead in making that change. We've yelled to the media. I want to see something happen. Seeing the mayor come out to accept those demands, and he stands behind us and that black lives matter – for that to come out of his mouth – I think that speaks volumes.”

Her activist husband Clifton concurs. “There is mix of people, that see the need to speak out against injustice when it happens. So, this is a different space, here in Austin. Our leadership has come out, they've already looked at our demands, had a moment of silence. The mayor has spoken out to it – immediately.

“This is different from Chicago, Baltimore, Ferguson, these areas where you see these young men succumbing to police brutality. This is entirely different. It's not that I believe in our city council or leadership to do the right thing - what I'm saying is, that they have no choice.”

If the city of Austin – city council and Austin police collectively – were to discover viable systems for rectification, it would be miraculous. Austin, for its size, has a poor history of police/minority interaction, and has a difficult time avoiding negative interactions with minorities because there’s been little attempt to understand their base issues. They see bodies and decay, but not why bodies are in living in decay. Chicago, Baltimore, Ferguson, Oakland, New York, and many others, have been slow to react or execute, with some being outright negligent.

Until humanity is preserved – young black and brown men and women are seen as human beings, and not warm bullet bags or choke dummies for overzealous officers – the killings will continue. The real questions lie in how and whether some law officers themselves are losing grip of their own humanity behind the security of their shields. Did Freeman, himself an African-American, not see himself in Joseph, both alive under the same sun? Does this matter for police officers, regardless of color?

I mean, did Freeman, ask a young, possibly angry, stark-naked kid some basic questions, before his terse list of demands? “Where do you live?” “Why are you outside like this?” “Does your mother know where you are?" “Do you need help?”

“Are you okay, son?”

For more photos of Thursday's protest, see "Justice for David Joseph."

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