Jessie Lee Owens Jr. was a Golden Boy. At least he thought so -- enough to have the words tattooed in fancy script on the fleshy part of his forearms -- "Golden" on the right, "Boy" on the left. This fact was noted by the Travis Co. medical examiner on a body diagram completed during Owens' June 14 autopsy.
Before his life came to an end that Saturday morning, Jessie Lee Owens thought his future really was golden. He was set for a Monday job interview at Jiffy Lube. He'd ended a tumultuous relationship with a former girlfriend, and he'd just gone to the high school prom with his new girlfriend, with whom he was smitten. Life was good.
"He was a very skinny little boy, and so he had been gaining some weight. I said, 'Has she been cooking for you?'" Owens' mother Barbara Shorts said. "And he said, 'Oh, yeah, mom.' He spent all his time with her. ... His life was starting to go in a very different direction, and he was really excited."
At 1:27am on June 14, Austin Police Department Officer Scott Glasgow, a three-year veteran, killed Jessie Lee Owens with five shots from his .40-caliber pistol. Glasgow has since been indicted, on one count of criminally negligent homicide, by a Travis Co. grand jury -- which later issued an unusual report decrying the "different brand of law enforcement" members had seen applied in East Austin. And the Owens shooting has become a venue for a broad agenda of questions, frustrations, and complaints -- about the commitment of city leaders, about APD Chief Stan Knee's ability to police his department, about the role of the police union in setting the city's priorities. And, most of all, about race.
Why was Jessie Lee Owens killed, and what will the city and APD do to try to make sure such a tragedy doesn't happen again? Owens' family fears those questions may go unanswered in the heat of political debate, and they find that prospect intolerable. "Can't we start with the simplest thing?" Shorts asks. She wants to know why no one -- especially Chief Knee -- has come out and said that what happened that night on Tillery Street was wrong. "I don't understand how you can't look at this and see the wrong in it."
Glasgow called for backup and began to follow the Neon, but before he could "initiate a traffic stop," Owens pulled over near 17th and Tillery. "The officer approached the vehicle on foot," reads the June 14 release. "While the officer was attempting to arrest the suspect, the suspect accelerated, dragging the officer. ... The officer discharged his weapon, striking the suspect several times" before the Neon hit a parked car and came to rest on a neighboring fence. Owens was pronounced dead at the scene, and Glasgow was taken to Brackenridge Hospital where he was treated for "injuries received during the altercation."
It would be hours before Owens' family learned of his fate. Shorts, a party planner who works for an Austin country club, had the day off that Saturday -- the first weekend she'd had off in nearly a month of weddings. Still, she'd stopped by her office before heading out to do some shopping. She was near MoPac and 183, she said, when her phone rang just after 1pm. "One of my employees called to tell me, 'There are a couple officers here' -- which is very strange for the country club," she said. None of the club's managers were around, so she headed back to the office to see what was up.
Two officers, one in uniform and one in plainclothes -- a victim's services counselor, she would later learn -- were waiting for her. "They said, 'Do you have a son named Jessie?' And I said yeah, and they said, 'Well, there was an incident early this morning, and he did not survive it.' And I said, 'Huh?' And they said, 'He didn't survive it.' And I just looked at him. I turned around, and I couldn't breathe."
The officer elaborated "that Jessie was driving a stolen car and was pulled over by the officer and then that Jessie had dragged the officer and that the officer had to shoot him. So in my mind, I'm thinking that [Glasgow] shot once and that ... Jessie had died, and that was it." It wasn't until the next day, when Jessie's great-aunt Hazel Obey -- a longtime East Austin community leader and Democratic activist -- went with Owens' father Jessie Sr. to the funeral home, that she found out her son had been shot multiple times.
Obey says the condition of her great-nephew's body was shocking. There was a large bullet wound in his heart, she said recently, pointing to the middle of her chest. "But these three here," she said, touching her left shoulder, "the powder burns were just right here." Glasgow's gun, she realized, had to have been pressed right up against Owens' left side. Obey had not seen a fifth wound -- which the family only learned about while watching the news on the day of Jessie Owens' funeral, when Ann del Llano, criminal justice liaison for the ACLU of Central Texas, mentioned five shots at a press conference at the crime scene. At that point, Shorts says, "everything was so surreal for me."
A year earlier, Sophia King -- a 20-year-old woman with a history of schizophrenia and related run-ins with the police -- had been fatally shot by APD Officer John Coffey as she allegedly attacked a housing authority employee with a knife. Coffey had been cleared by an APD internal investigation and no-billed by a Travis Co. grand jury; but the city's newly created Office of the Police Monitor had recommended a further independent review, which was still ongoing at the time of Owens' death. (It would be several months before Austinites would learn that the results of that investigation would remain sealed.)
Despite the intense scrutiny given to the King case, many East Austin leaders felt the real issues it raised were in danger of being ignored, and they feared something similar would happen in the Owens case -- the police version of the shooting would be accepted, and Owens would be forgotten. Or vilified. "I am concerned there may be an attempt to discredit the life of this boy so that the officer will escape punishment," said the Rev. Sterling Lands, pastor of Greater Calvary Baptist Church, a member of the OPM's citizen review panel, and a friend of Hazel Obey.
Immediately following the shooting, it appeared Lands was right. From the first news reports, the image took hold of Owens as a young car thief, likely up to no good the night he was shot. On June 17, the Austin American-Statesman reported -- inaccurately -- that Owens was a fugitive from justice at the time he was killed; he had failed to show up for a court date in late August 2002, on a charge that he'd stolen a Honda Accord back in 2001. A warrant was issued for his arrest, "and police had been looking for him since then," the daily reported, until Glasgow "unknowingly" found him on June 14. But according to court records, Owens was not wanted at the time of his shooting; there was no outstanding warrant on the 2001 charge or any other. (The daily subsequently printed a quasi-correction, laying blame for its mistake on the district clerk's office.)
Also widely reported were Owens' no-contest pleas to three separate misdemeanors: a marijuana possession charge in December 2001, a family-violence charge in August 2002, and a charge of driving with a suspended license in March of this year. He received deferred adjudication on the marijuana charge, which was revoked after the family-violence case; in January 2003 he was sentenced by Judge Elisabeth Earle to 90-day concurrent sentences for both of those cases. The remaining charges against Owens were dismissed after his death.
Shorts says her son's run-ins with the law were not as serious as they sound -- and that in the family-violence case, there is a "whole other story" that differs from the court record, but that she'd rather not discuss publicly. "Until he's 17, 18, he's home with mom, and mom controls everything he does," said Shorts. "You get out of the house at 18, and you've got a free world, and you're invincible. He didn't like altercations. He was not a violent person; he did not like being angry with people. I know at 18 I thought I was invincible."
But in any case, Owens' past was apparently unknown to Glasgow at the time of the incident. (It's unclear that APD even identified Owens until after he was dead; Glasgow's initial call concerned the car, not the driver.) Shorts and Obey emphasize that Owens did not steal the Neon he was driving that morning -- he had borrowed it from a friend and was planning to return it the next day. According to Bob Mann -- UT journalism professor, occasional spokesperson for Democratic politicos, and longtime friend of Obey, now serving as liaison between the family and the media -- the family believes that the report the car was stolen was itself out-of-date at the time of the stop. APD has not offered any claims or further evidence that the Neon had in fact been stolen, by Owens or anyone else.
Such accidents are not that uncommon for rookie officers, says Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield. "As a new officer, you've got so much to get used to -- all of the things you've got to be doing while driving," he said. "So it is unfair to draw a comparison between those wrecks and [the Owens shooting]. The point, Sheffield added, is that APD did "take corrective action" by suspending Glasgow.
The car Glasgow was driving was not equipped with a video camera, although APD had pledged to install cameras in every patrol car as part of its settlement of litigation arising from the 1995 Cedar Avenue "police riot" -- an earlier sad episode in the troubled relationship between APD and black Austinites. (In the days after the Owens shooting, Mayor Will Wynn announced the city would have every patrol vehicle equipped with video by the end of 2003.) So as details -- and yet more questions and concerns -- began to emerge about what happened that night on Tillery Street, Owens' family had no way to verify the truth of the shifting official story.
"It went from [Owens being in] a stolen car, to an allegedly stolen car, to Jessie was reaching down to the floorboard," Obey said -- prompting Glasgow to believe Owens could be armed, and thus to draw his own weapon. Shorts said she was first told that Glasgow had stopped Owens, later that Owens stopped on his own. Then, she was told, Owens had opened his car door and then slammed it on Glasgow's hand before attempting to drive off. But later she was told that Glasgow reached in the car, in an attempt to remove the keys from the ignition, when he got caught in the driver's compartment and Owens attempted to drive away. None of these scenarios made much sense to Obey. "As an officer, you should be trained to give complete stories of anything that happens to you," she says, "because you've got to have this written down."
The official story was first written down as a snippet in Deputy Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock's autopsy report: "Per Austin Police Department," she wrote, "[Glasgow] made routine traffic stop, car came back stolen. Officer approached vehicle; stated to [homicide detectives] that [Owens] appeared to be reaching toward floorboard. Officer became involved in struggle with decedent (unknown number of shots) to decedent's left shoulder area. EMS was called and was unable to resuscitate. Decedent was obvious dead on scene."
The indictment of Glasgow for criminally negligent homicide, handed down Oct. 20, lays out further changes to the scenario. The grand jury charged Glasgow with causing Owens' death with a series of possible violations of APD procedure -- but makes no mention of his actually firing the five shots. These violations included parking beside, rather than behind, Owens; failing to turn on his lights; approaching Owens without waiting for backup; "failing to recognize he had control" of Owens; attempting to remove Owens from the Neon despite being on the wrong side of Owens' open door; attempting to handcuff Owens by reaching over the door and into the passenger compartment; and attempting to grab Owens "to gain control over him" and reaching his arm (and drawn weapon) into the car. These actions, the indictment concluded, were "against the peace and dignity of the state."
Again, Shorts was shocked. "I just assumed that if a cop pulls you over he is behind you," she said. "Now, in a felony stop, if you are so concerned about this high-crime person, why would you stop [next to him]? If [Owens] had a gun all he would have to do is reach [straight out] and shoot you." Shorts wrinkles her brow before taking on an incredulous tone as if she were addressing Glasgow directly. "You, to me, provoked that situation. You did that. And then you want to turn around and tell us that it was his fault that he's dead," she said. "That's a problem for me."
Obey was driving home with Shorts' brother when this call came, and she says she prayed: "Oh God, give me the right words ... because I honestly didn't have an answer." She had been "talking it through with her brother and at the same time I was scrolling down through my phone, trying to figure it out," she said, when she came across the Rev. Jesse Jackson's phone number. (Obey is the Texas chair of Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.) She didn't hesitate, she said, before dialing -- and Jackson responded, "What the hell does [Owens' past] have to do with them shooting him down in cold blood?'"
Obey continued, "I've been an activist all over the city, and all across this county ... and I never thought that it would hit this close to home, and it has. This is my blood and it will not go unattended."
It hasn't, partly because of Obey's reputation and status. Five City Council members, including Mayor Wynn, and City Manager Toby Futrell all attended Owens' funeral at David Chapel Baptist Church -- where Obey's late husband had been pastor for many years. This was a first for the victim of an officer-involved shooting and was attributed at the time to Obey's long friendships with players in local politics.
The grand jury's indictment of Glasgow -- also a first in an on-duty shooting -- was rendered after the jury's 90-day term had been extended to allow more time to consider the Owens case. "On this day," Shorts read from a prepared statement at a press conference when the indictment was announced, "we are reminded that no one is above the law. To each of the grand jury members who put principle ahead of political pressure, thank you."
At that point, Shorts had not yet read the indictment; she had only found out shortly before, at the office of family attorney Jim Sawyer, that Glasgow had been charged with criminally negligent homicide. "And I thought, OK, what does that mean?" She didn't have time to find out before being "swept" before the cameras.
Because the jurors built their indictment on a string of potential procedural violations, it was quickly clear that the case against Glasgow might be difficult for District Attorney Ronnie Earle and his prosecutors to bring to trial. The APD manual -- a 5-inch-thick binder of general orders, policies, and procedures -- "consists of principles and values that guide the performance of departmental activity," it reads, but is "not a statement of what must be done in a particular situation." Meanwhile, the Texas Penal Code defines "criminal negligence" as not being aware of "a substantial and unjustifiable risk" of harm that is so obvious that "the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard care that an ordinary person would exercise." Under that standard, even if APD's procedures were "a statement of what must be done," failure to follow them might not be "negligent."
As Shorts was speaking, the APD put out another press release, indicating that Officer Glasgow "has been notified of the indictment and will be placed on leave without pay from the Austin Police Department." That was the only "official" response, but the APA's Sheffield filled the void with a strongly worded criticism of the grand jury's actions. In an Oct. 22 story in the Statesman, Sheffield said he would ask APD patrol sergeants to "start each shift by reading aloud a copy of the indictment" as a warning. Further, he told the daily that "the indictment will probably cause [officers] to follow departmental policy strictly, which could lead to fewer criminals being caught and possibly endangering officers."
Local activists were enraged. "No one is present or visible," Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, said of city leaders at an Oct. 23 press conference. "All we've heard from is Mike Sheffield, yet I didn't vote for Mike Sheffield, did you?" That same day, Knee -- who had been out of town -- announced that although he would uphold Glasgow's suspension, standard in any officer-involved shooting, he had decided to reinstate the officer's pay, pending the outcome of the department's Internal Affairs investigation, which had been put on hold while the grand jury deliberated.
This too was standard procedure, but it did not go over well with Owens' family or community activists. "My tax money is paying for a man who shot and killed my child," Shorts said on Oct. 23. "Now is the time to fire Officer Glasgow, regardless of whether he is tried or convicted in criminal court." Earlier this month, after meeting with Hazel Obey, Knee announced he was seeking permission to waive the 180-day deadline under state civil-service laws -- which would have come Dec. 11 -- for him to discipline Glasgow, leaving open the option that the officer can be "indefinitely suspended" for his actions in the Owens case.
Finally, on Oct. 30 City Manager Toby Futrell penned a response. "From my perspective the [council] has been neither silent nor inactive on police issues," she wrote. She told Linder she shared his "concern" that Sheffield's comments "created the false impression that the [APA] plays a formal role" in managing the police department. But that was all. "It was a very guarded response," Linder says. "She avoided the real question: How are we going to hold our police officers accountable?"
Meanwhile, Owens' family questioned whether Earle's office, perhaps in concert with Knee, had interfered with the grand jury in an attempt to protect Glasgow -- and indicated they would ask the U.S. attorney's office in San Antonio to investigate. Shorts was concerned that Earle might have misled the jurors about the law, causing them to render the questionable indictment, which she on Oct. 23 called "a slap in the face" to the jurors "who thought [Glasgow] should be held accountable" for her son's death.
Earle (also a longtime friend of Obey's) replied that "the indictment was drafted pursuant to the specific instructions of the grand jury," down to the "very specific language," but declined to elaborate further, citing the confidential nature of grand jury proceedings. Since the initial release of the indictment, some observers have softened their initially harsh opinions, believing Earle can in fact bring a successful case of negligence per se -- showing that Glasgow's actions were irresponsible on their face.
Owens' family played an unusually large role in the proceedings and events leading up to the indictment. According to Shorts, Earle invited her and Obey to his office for a series of meetings while the grand jury was in session, "just so he could meet me and understand where we were coming from," she said. "And I appreciate that he did, because I understand that is not typical."
A source close to the case tells the Chronicle that an outside forensics expert was called in, at the family's request, to testify to the grand jury as to whether the physical evidence -- including fingerprints on the Neon -- jibed with Glasgow's version of the incident. (Reportedly, the expert concluded that it did.) The same source says that, in a highly unusual move, both Shorts and Obey were allowed to testify at length before the jurors. "They were not witnesses to anything," the source said, "so what could they offer that was material to the case?"
On Nov. 13, in another highly unusual move, the grand jury issued a report on its proceedings, in which members indicated being troubled by "a different brand of law enforcement" -- in which young officers with "limited training and little life experience" were being assigned to patrol minority neighborhoods. "Austin and its citizens are fond of boasting of our diversity and tolerance, yet we find it difficult, even painful, to have a public conversation about race and the distrust that exists between certain segments of our community."
Shorts said she met with family that evening to review the report. "To me, that grand jury stepped out on a limb and said, 'OK, we know y'all know there is a problem, but we're going to put it in black and white because we have an opportunity to do that.'" Still, the report did not help answer the questions Shorts has about what exactly occurred June 14 -- though it did add a layer of hurt. "I can't make it about race, because I didn't grow up like that. I know [racism] exists, but my family didn't raise us that way," she said. "I can't look at another person and see color. It hurts me, the possibility that someone looked at my child that way that night and saw color. That hurts."
City leaders pointed out that APD has been recruiting older and more educated officers and that the staffing statistics for East Austin do not differ dramatically from those elsewhere in town. But APD in general is a rookie-heavy police force, thanks to a lowering of the department's retirement age and a city goal to increase staffing to 2.0 officers per 1,000 residents. A rookie's first job is usually an evening or night-shift patrol, so across the city, young officers handle the majority of daily patrols. "When I came out [of the academy] the young officers were kind of spread out," said Council Member Danny Thomas, who spent 21 years as an APD officer before being elected in 2000. "Now you have a trend of a lot more young officers, not just in East Austin. I don't know if the citizens understand that."
Futrell and Knee outlined several responses to the grand jurors' concerns. Cadets will be required to "sponsor and implement" a community service project in East Austin and community leaders will be asked to attend cadet training "to provide insight and perspective on community issues." Knee has asked the Rev. Frank Garrett, co-host of KAZI radio's morning show, to conduct "small group meetings throughout the city to gauge the strengths and weaknesses in police service delivery." That information will then be given to an "independent consultant" who will make recommendations regarding cadet and in-service training." Finally, Knee wrote that he intends to find a way for patrol officers to have more time to interact with folks in the community, so that they aren't just "faceless persons running from call to call with no chance to stop and talk."
Although city officials appeared earnest -- and sincere -- with their promises, the public show of solidarity didn't play all that well. "It was a response to public pressure, let's face it," said Linder. "The biggest thing is police brutality and misconduct in East Austin," he said, and it was the department's "discretionary" use-of-force policies -- not any deficiency in training -- that led to Owens' death.
Shorts and Obey were equally unimpressed. To Obey, Knee's plan is a way for city officials to avoid responsibility for leading community discussions about race and policing. "Every time something happens on this side of town, we've got to put together a freakin' task force," she said. "When they don't want to do something on this side of town, or they don't know exactly what to do, they give us a task force."
Shorts agrees. "Any dialogue about racism is good, but ... you cannot appoint people to take care of it for you," she said. "I really don't want my son's death to end up in a subcommittee report over here on someone's desk. If you're the one we put in office, [then] you're the leaders, and you are the ones that need to sit around the table."
Still, during the Nov. 19 press conference Knee was solemn about his proposed approach: "We meet issues head-on," he said. "That's my slogan; that's my motto in the department. As a team, we can make the changes to get the public trust."
But Knee's tenure as APD chief has been marked by criticism that he hasn't met issues head-on -- particularly where discipline is concerned, an issue that plays a long role in fostering public trust. Both privately and publicly (including under oath), APD officers and observers have charged that the department employs disparate disciplinary standards, going easy on some officers and coming down hard on others, without much relationship to the severity of their offenses.
"I know a great officer who is bothered by the fact that he has to go to work with officers who have not been punished for the things they've done wrong," said the ACLU's Ann del Llano. "It's not fair to good officers to allow the bad ones to remain on the force. We absolutely have to get rid of our bad apples and move on."
The daily did not report, however, that in 14 of the 23 cases, the "suspect" made "no complaint" of injury, and none of the 23 suspects ever filed a complaint with APD or with the OPM regarding Glasgow's actions. In each case, Glasgow's use-of-force was deemed justified by the APD training unit officers who are responsible for reviewing and compiling the report. Nonetheless, the reports angered Owens' family and supporters, who saw them as proof that Glasgow was a problem officer who should have been stopped. Linder told the Chronicle and the City Council that the OPM, under former monitor Iris Jones, had already informed Knee of issues concerning Glasgow, but Cumberbatch says his office doesn't have any information regarding this claim and can't confirm that Glasgow had ever "caught the attention" of either the OPM or APD Internal Affairs.
Sheffield says that young officers have a tendency to overreport their actions, making the use-of-force reports, by themselves, a problematic tool. Officers are only required by the report to complete the form when a suspect actually complains of pain or injury -- in which case Glasgow would have only had to file nine. "There are a lot of officers who will only [fill out a use-of-force] report if they use their nightstick or something other than their hands," Sheffield said. But he adds that disparate disciplinary policies under Knee have created an environment where officers would "rather get caught overreporting than underreporting."
As with so many questions in the Owens case, rumor and anger and controversy have arisen to fill the silence left by APD. "We never saw [Knee] try to maintain control of the police department or of the city," said Shorts. "But the ultimate thing is that you have to take the secrecy out of what you do." Without that, she said, it looks like the department is engaged in a cover-up.
Obey agrees with her niece's assessment. "Right now it is coming up under the guise of stupidity in the administration," she said. "Too much has passed under the watch of this police chief. And Chief Knee keeps acting like it's nothing."
Shorts is a reasonable woman; all she wants, she says, are some answers -- why, and how, her son died on June 14. "I truly feel that what happened on that night may have been an accident, when he shot my son," she said. But she feels that Glasgow's shooting Owens five times "took it to another level, and it hurts me that the police department can't look at this and say [that Glasgow] messed up. You messed up."
There has been no word from Earle's office on whether they intend to prosecute Glasgow. The police department's internal investigation is ongoing; it may result in Glasgow's being fired or cleared or somewhere in between. The case has yet to be referred to the OPM. And Shorts is still in mourning.
Without Obey's high-profile involvement, Shorts says, she isn't sure her son's shooting would have received as much attention as it has. But she doesn't see anything that has happened -- the indictment, the grand jury's report, the city's response -- as a victory, either. On the day the grand jury indicted Glasgow, Shorts says, someone asked her if she had gotten what she wanted.
"And I said, this is not a victory for me. It's not a victory that another family has to go through what we're going through," she said, tears spilling from her eyes. "It's not a victory when our city is in such disarray. Do I feel vindicated right now? No. But my frustration is not only for my family, but for everyone else out there. What do we do with officers who do not do their job? And if we cannot trust Chief Knee to do his job, where are we?"
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