Point Austin: Halloween Masks
Everyone had a role to play, and some performed better than others
Bobby Taylor, attorney for the family of Daniel Rocha
Monday night's meeting of the city's Citizen Review Panel of the police monitor's office, concerned primarily with the June 9 police shooting of Daniel Rocha, got off to a bad start before it even took place. Originally scheduled for Oct. 17, it was postponed because of a conflict with an event previously scheduled by the League of United Latin American Citizens. It was moved to Oct. 31 so other folks complained that it conflicted with Halloween. Accordingly, the hour was adjusted, but officials rejected another rescheduling because of the state-mandated 180-day limit on formal disciplining of officers. Especially if the CRP intends to call for an independent investigation of the Rocha shooting which at this writing seems likely it has to allow enough time for that investigation to take place.
Halloween or not, there were plenty of citizens on hand to add their three minutes to the public discussion, although too many preferred to engage in more-radical-than-thou woofing than to contribute anything useful to the panel's deliberations. Indeed, the emotional and intellectual high point was reached in the first 15 minutes, when attorney Bobby Taylor spoke, accompanied by Daniela Rocha, who was then followed by an emotional Barbara Shorts, who also lost her son, Jesse Lee Owens, in a still unjustified police shooting. "We seem to be forming a club of mothers," said a tearful Shorts. "All of a sudden we have become 'Mothers Against the City,' and it's a horrible place to be."
Both Taylor and Shorts asked, "Why are we here?" in pointed reference to the legal limitations of the monitor's office all it can do is make recommendations to APD brass, which can accept or reject its findings. Nevertheless, said Taylor, he and his clients were here to "follow the process," in order to do whatever may be required to achieve any measure of justice for the death of Daniel Rocha.
Get Something Done
Taylor and Shorts were particularly strong in calling for an independent investigation (including a federal Department of Justice investigation), and in more generally taking the city to task for not yet creating an adequate system to truly monitor, review, and correct APD practices. Taylor specifically charged the police on the scene at Rocha's death with lying to the grand jury, because according to the APD's own reconstruction of the shooting it could not have happened in the way they described it. But in any case, he noted, by Officer Julie Schroeder's own admission, she shot the unarmed Rocha (who was attempting to escape) because she couldn't find her Taser and thought Rocha might have taken it. If that's sufficient reason for being shot in the back, said Taylor, "then all of us in this room are subject to being blown away at any time."
After that introduction, much of what followed was anti-climax. There was a whole lot of berating the panel for being what it is a volunteer, citizen panel, with very limited enforcement powers and intermittent cop-baiting of a peculiarly juvenile sort, reaching its nadir with the ACLU's Ann del Llano angrily denouncing the Austin Police Association's Mike Sheffield as "Boss Sheffield," as though the union president, who negotiated the current police meet-and-confer contract (since actual collective bargaining by actual public sector unions is forbidden in Texas), were somehow the local reincarnation of Jimmy Hoffa and John L. Lewis combined. If only.
Despite the reflexive hyperbole, several speakers reiterated three sensible ACLU recommendations: independent audio/video recording (official APD policy, but broken in the Rocha case); patrol pairing of veterans and rookies, especially in East Austin; and a uniform disciplinary standard for all personnel. The department has specific objections to each of these standards, but none of them are insurmountable, and the City Council (virtually all in attendance, along with City Manager Toby Futrell) would do well to move forward with all of them as expeditiously as possible.
Life and Death
Not everyone was quite so diplomatic. Eastside activists from People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources demanded first an independent investigation but presumed they already knew the results, for they also demanded prosecution of Officer Schroeder for murder and the firing of Chief Stan Knee. PODER's Susana Almanza did emphasize the undeniable: "Something has to be done, so that we don't have the same excuses over and over again."
Although CRP chair and former mayor Roy Butler lamented the panel's lack of enforcement power, some of their recommendations have indeed been accepted as in the case of an independent investigation in the shooting of Sophia King. Although their recommendation of the termination of Officer Scott Glasgow who killed Jesse Lee Owens was not followed, the Rocha case is similar enough that it would seem the same recommendation should be forthcoming. Whatever the precise sequence of events, by her own admission Officer Schroeder shot and killed the unarmed Daniel Rocha in a moment of irrational panic, killing him and risking the life of her fellow officer, beneath or behind him. On those grounds alone, it would seem she is no longer qualified to remain an armed police officer.
There should indeed be an independent investigation, and whatever comes out of that investigation including possible prosecution for criminal wrongdoing should be pursued. But whatever else happens, the life-and-death power of a police officer should not be vested in someone who has demonstrated her inability to handle that power.
Officer Schroeder should not get another chance to make an irrevocable mistake.