Policing Sixth Street in White and Black
Two conflicting stories did a Downtown partier get out of control, or did the cops?
In October 2003, and again in January 2004, Austin American-Statesman editorialist Alberta Phillips addressed the tense relationship between Austin's police and many of the city's minority residents. In light of the then-recent officer-involved shooting death of Jessie Lee Owens during a late-night East Austin traffic stop and previous experience with racial profiling of her own children by Texas cops Phillips, who is African-American, summarized the advice she was giving her sons on how to behave during an encounter with police. "I rehearsed the drill with my sons. Be meek so as not to appear threatening," she wrote. "In frustration, I yelled when they didn't get it exactly right. 'Your voice is too loud, too booming. Please make it softer. Please!'" Phillips' lessons in deportment for young black men became all too timely on Dec. 31, during a Sixth Street encounter between her sons and a team of APD officers. When the incident concluded, Phillips' 24-year-old son, Mehcad Brooks, had been arrested and charged with resisting arrest, a class A misdemeanor.
And when the dust cleared, there was a radical difference between the police version of the incident and that provided by Brooks' lawyer, Gary Bledsoe.
What the Cops Say
At least according to the arrest affidavit of APD Officer J. Marquez's account of the incident, Phillips' lessons in meekness apparently hadn't succeeded. Shortly before 3am on Dec. 31, Marquez wrote, APD police were trying to clear Sixth Street in preparation for reopening the street to traffic. "At this time I observed several individuals standing in the middle of the street arguing with the mounted patrol officers." Using whistles, Marquez continued, the mounted cops had successfully cleared pedestrians from the roadway, save for a small group standing in the 400 block of Sixth who refused to comply. After being told "multiple times" to get out of the street, all but one person (identified by Marquez as Mehcad Jason Brooks, whose name is misspelled throughout the police report) complied with the requests. According to Marquez' account, Brooks became verbally abusive: "'Don't fucking touch me,'" Marquez recalled Brooks yelling. "'Your horse better not touch me, my dad is an attorney.'"
Marquez said he tried to calm Brooks down, and he finally got Brooks onto the sidewalk, but he still wouldn't calm down. He was joined by his brother, 25-year-old William Brooks, who was also standing on the corner, and Marquez reported that the two men began to berate the officers. "Both brothers stated, 'All you guys are fired, every single one of you is getting fired. You don't know who I am,'" Marquez recalled. Mehcad followed Marquez back into the street, the officer wrote, "yelling" for the officer's name and badge number, and Marquez told the brothers that they must return to the sidewalk or face arrest.
Mehcad, Marquez wrote, would not comply, despite the involvement of several additional officers in what was apparently becoming a melee. "Mehcad was actively pulling his hands away from us, causing all of us to fall over a motorcycle and parked car." While several officers were struggling with the younger Brooks, Marquez wrote, "I was able to pull [my] tazer [sic] out and drive stun Mehcad in the lower back. He started to yell but continued to resist officers trying to hold on to his arms. I accidentally tazed [Officers] Williams, McCormick and Koch on their limbs while trying to get to Mehcad. Williams deployed pepper spray to get him to be subdued with negative results. I tazed Mehcad again until we restrained him in handcuffs" and carted him off to the Travis Co. jail.
What the Lawyer Says
"It's not what happened, I'll tell you," says attorney Gary Bledsoe, head of the state chapter of the NAACP. Bledsoe is also married to Alberta Phillips and is representing her son, his stepson, Mehcad Brooks. According to Bledsoe, Officer Marquez's account is a stirring work of fiction "completely false," Bledsoe says except for the details of what Bledsoe described as "excessive force" employed by the officer. (Moreover, according to Bledsoe, Officer Marquez has since been suspended as a consequence of another Sixth Street incident. The Civil Service Commission had not confirmed this claim at press time.)
As Bledsoe tells the story which he says he gathered from several other eyewitnesses in addition to Mehcad and William just after bar closing time, Brooks was standing on the "cobblestone part" of Sixth Street, just off the curb, "talking on his cell phone." APD mounted patrol officers came by and were saying something, he said, but Brooks didn't "exactly hear, because he was on his cell phone." Without pause, Bledsoe said, the mounted officers, "used the horse as a weapon pushing [Brooks]." Startled, Brooks told the officer, "'My dad's a lawyer, you can't do that to me. What's your name?'" Without responding, Bledsoe said, another officer, apparently Marquez, "slams him up against a car." Officer Marquez then used his Taser "several times," Bledsoe says "not just once" and sprayed Brooks with pepper spray. Brooks, Bledsoe insists, "is completely innocent."
Moreover, according to Bledsoe, the Dec. 31 incident involving Mehcad and William Brooks is just another in a growing line of examples of police brutality in the entertainment district. Bledsoe says he has represented a handful of clients (and, apparently, the number is growing) who have been arrested Downtown under similar circumstances, and that many of them were ultimately acquitted. Bledsoe said he is confident that Brooks, too, will beat the rap. "The Sixth Street officers are out of control," he concluded. And it's worth noting that Bledsoe is not the first observer to suggest that the behavior of the Sixth Street police team leaves much to be desired.
At press time, Brooks' case was set for a hearing on Jan. 31.