Troubling Questions About APD's M.O.
It should've been a routine felony traffic stop. But when three-year APD officer Scott Glasgow pulled over 20-year-old Jessie Lee Owens on suspicion of driving a stolen car, what happened was anything but routine, leaving Owens dead -- shot five times -- in an incident that once again has Austin's Eastside and activist community crying foul.
According to an APD press release, at 1:27am on June 14, Glasgow, on patrol in the city's Central East sector, spotted a Plymouth Neon that had been reported stolen being driven near the intersection of 12th and Airport. According to the APD, Glasgow followed the car and called for a backup unit. But before another patrol unit arrived, and before Glasgow "could initiate a traffic stop," Owens pulled over on the 1600 block of Tillery Street. What happened next is now the center of controversy and multilayered inquiry. Owens is dead, and Glasgow is on administrative leave -- the subject of a homicide investigation, an APD Internal Affairs Division investigation, a Travis Co. grand jury investigation, and an Office of the Police Monitor investigation.
According to the APD, Glasgow got out of his patrol car and approached Owens in the Neon. Sources tell the Chronicle that Glasgow's gun was already raised when he got to the driver's window. According to Owens' autopsy report, which recounts information supplied to the Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office by the APD, once Glasgow arrived at the driver's side window the officer "became involved in a struggle with [Owens] through the driver's window" after Glasgow saw Owens reaching toward the car's floorboard, wrote Deputy Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock. "[Owens] accelerated. [Glasgow] shot [Owens] (unknown number of shots) to [Owens'] left shoulder area. EMS was called and was unable to resuscitate. [Owens] was obviously dead on scene." According to APD, the "struggle" at the window ended with Glasgow's arms getting caught inside the car while Owens accelerated, dragging Glasgow. Glasgow then fired his gun -- a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol -- five times; the Neon took out a chainlink fence and hit a parked Ford Expedition before it finally stopped moving.
The official version of events has left open many questions, which together raise the question of whether Glasgow alone bears responsibility for the fatal incident. Where was Glasgow's backup? Without a backup, why did Glasgow approach Owens, and why did he reach into the car? And why wasn't there an in-car camera documenting the incident -- which could lay to rest the competing scenarios working their way through the community?
Nelson Linder, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, echoes many who are skeptical about the circumstances of the incident when he says the Owens shooting is rife with problems. "It's just problematic all the way around," he said. "The biggest thing of the case is that [Glasgow] violated a number of procedures." Among other things, Linder wants to know why Glasgow approached Owens in the car without a backup present and especially why, under those circumstances, Glasgow would reach into the car. (How Glasgow got caught inside the car is still the subject of speculation. Sources close to the Owens family suggest that forensic evidence -- like skin cells or fingerprints -- lifted from the driver's door may help answer the question.) "If he'd called for backup, what's the urgency?" he asked. Linder also wants to know why Glasgow pulled up next to Owens -- instead of slightly behind him, which Linder contends would've been safer and more in line with departmental procedure -- and without turning on his cruiser's emergency lights. Further, Linder is unsure how Owens could have intentionally dragged Glasgow when he'd already been shot several times. Linder said he thinks Glasgow "really just panicked," causing the pistol to fire off five rounds in rapid succession. "This kid was shot five times," he said. "It would be difficult for him to be [knowingly] dragging this officer under these circumstances." Linder said the NAACP is both closely following the department's investigation and is in the preliminary stages of gathering information for their own independent inquiry.
Austin attorney Jim Sawyer, retained by Owens' family, could not be reached for comment but on June 19 told the Statesman that Owens' family wants to be involved in the investigation. "They're saying, 'Please, please, please, let us know what is going on,'" Sawyer told the daily. "If we're all here for the truth, we can all sit at the same table. [Owens' family] can live with the idea that it's a self-defense [shooting]."
The odds of Owens' family being involved in any real investigation are slim to none. Still, perhaps in part because of the family's political clout -- longtime political activist Hazel Obey, a Friend of Bill Clinton, among others, was Owens' aunt -- the city's response to the Owens shooting has been far more vocal and prompt than with other officer-involved shootings, including last June's fatal shooting of Sophia King. On July 3 Mayor Will Wynn issued a short press release, announcing the city's commitment to having video cameras installed in all APD vehicles -- approximately 350 units -- by the end of 2003. "By supplying all police vehicles that may be involved with making car stops, we protect our officers as well as the community," Wynn said in the release. "This is something that I have been pushing for ... and ultimately I'm confident the community will see the value in making this happen more than a year ahead of time."
Indeed, the cameras-in-cars plan has been in the works for some time. The city initially "committed" to the plan as part of the Cedar Avenue settlement, but the end-date for installation wasn't until the end of 2004, said Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman. So far the city has installed 156 cameras -- through grants as well as city funding -- but it doesn't appear that those cars have been placed on any sort of prioritized scheduling -- like being earmarked for patrol officers working late evening or overnight shifts. (The department does some prioritization; all DWI enforcement vehicles are equipped with cameras.) Still, Huffman said that early implementation is really the only solution to who should have cameras. "You could argue either side of that -- who should have them and when," she said. "The only thing that will help resolve all of these issues is early implementation. That is the best of all possible solutions."
More troubling is why Glasgow's backup didn't arrive until after Owens was dead. Last month Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield warned of the danger of reducing officer staffing levels due to budget constraints. Last week the Chronicle requested the number of officers working the three late-night patrol shifts in the Central East Command on June 13 and into the early morning of June 14, when Owens was shot. Despite assurances that the numbers would be made available by July 7, as of press time, APD had still not provided that information.
It is hard to imagine that, in such a well-populated Central East neighborhood, there was no backup unit available that could reach Glasgow before the fatal incident. Sheffield would not comment directly on the investigation into the incident, saying only that the incident has been tragic for everyone. "[Glasgow] and his family are going through an extremely difficult time, as is the Owens family," he said. "Looking at this issue, we have a process in place, and we want that process to work. All the questions will be asked and answered." Last month Sheffield warned that reduced staffing means backlogged calls, longer response times, and less backup for officers, and he urged the city to keep staffing levels at 80% or higher. "I don't think we should cut back on service delivery," he said. "When these things go away, it impacts the community."
The APD's investigation into the Owens shooting is ongoing; Glasgow could ultimately face a range of departmental sanctions, from a simple written reprimand to termination, in addition to possible criminal charges. Sources close to the case expect it to reach a Travis County grand jury by the end of July.