Schroeder Fired for Rocha Shooting
Police union accuses Knee of caving, calls for resignation
On Nov. 18, APD Chief Stan Knee fired Officer Julie Schroeder for fatally shooting 18-year-old Daniel Rocha during a traffic stop on June 9. Knee also handed Schroeder's supervisor, Sgt. Don Doyle, a 28-day suspension in connection with the shooting, for his failure to record any video or audio of the incident on his in-car recorder, in violation of department policy.
Schroeder's actions violated numerous department policies, Knee wrote in a 12-page disciplinary memo including policies regarding the proper use and handling of Taser weapons, and procedures for using in-car recording equipment and concluded that her use of deadly force was inappropriate. "This was a deadly force encounter that, in my opinion, was avoidable," he wrote. "Not only ... did Schroeder use deadly force when it was not appropriate to do so, she needlessly jeopardized the life of another officer."
Rocha was killed by a single round from Schroeder's gun, fired into his back shortly after 11pm during a stop made in connection with an undercover drug operation in Southeast Austin. According to Schroeder's official statements, Rocha fought with her and Doyle after the SUV he was riding in was stopped at the intersection of Quicksilver Boulevard and South Pleasant Valley a struggle that ultimately ended with the three of them on the ground. Schroeder said she shot Rocha because she thought he'd grabbed her Taser from a Velcro pocket on her police vest and was preparing to use it on Doyle.
In the termination memo, given to Schroeder Friday afternoon after her disciplinary review board hearing with Knee and the other officers in her chain of command (each of whom agreed with Knee's decision to terminate her), Knee wrote that Schroeder's decision to shoot placed Doyle's life at risk. Rocha, who both officers said was only trying to escape, did not "pose a threat of death or serious bodily harm" to either Schroeder or Doyle. Schroeder failed to use the "minimum amount of force" necessary to arrest Rocha and instead resorted to deadly force a decision that Knee considered unreasonable and unsafe. Indeed, by grabbing for her gun and shooting Rocha in the back while he was still tangled up with Doyle, who was trying to hold on to Rocha's legs to stop him from running away, Schroeder unnecessarily placed Doyle at a "substantial risk" of being shot, Knee wrote. "At the time ... Schroeder decided to use deadly force ... Doyle was on the ground struggling to hold onto ... Rocha's leg, while at the same time attempting to get up," Knee wrote. "The bullet that struck Daniel Rocha could have easily passed through his body, striking ... Doyle." Further, Knee wrote that Schroeder's explanation of why and when she decided to shoot belied her assertion that she believed Doyle was in imminent danger of being incapacitated by her Taser. According to Knee, Schroeder told APD Internal Affairs investigators that before firing her gun she "leaned a little bit to the left," to make sure she was firing at Rocha, who was wearing a white shirt, and not at Doyle, who was dressed in black. If Schroeder had time to do that, Knee wrote, she also had the time to determine whether Rocha actually had her Taser. "While Officer Schroeder initially had a reasonable belief that Daniel Rocha might have obtained her Taser during the struggle, it is clear to me that she had an opportunity, and given that opportunity, an obligation, to confirm whether he in fact did before she decided to use deadly force," he wrote. "Had Officer Schroeder simply leaned over Rocha's shoulder, or [placed] herself in a position where she could've seen that Rocha had no weapon(s) in his hands, this deadly force encounter could have and would have been avoided."
Moreover, Knee wrote that Schroeder violated department policy regarding the carrying and handling of her electro-shock Taser weapon. Contrary to policy, Schroeder carried the weapon in a pocket located on the same side of her body as her pistol, a violation of APD policy requiring that the weapon be carried in an approved holster "on the side opposite their duty weapon" a mandate intended to ensure that officers will not mistake the Taser for their firearm. Knee also cited Schroeder's failure to turn on her in-car video recorder after stopping the vehicle Rocha was riding in, noting that there was no reason she couldn't use the equipment, especially since she'd used the recorder earlier that evening to record a previous traffic stop.
Knee's decision to hand Schroeder an "indefinite suspension" civil service parlance for termination mirrored the Nov. 4 recommendation of the Citizen Review Panel, which, via Police Monitor Ashton Cumberbatch, issued a harsh assessment of Schroeder's actions. Schroeder's "excuses" for her actions "highlight the lengths that Schroeder has gone to justify what is unjustifiable," the panel wrote in a memo to Knee and City Manager Toby Futrell. "Is this the definition of professionalism you had in mind when you declared the goal that APD would '... be recognized as the most professional police department in the United States'? For the community's sake, we pray not."
Knee's decision sparked a hostile reaction from the Austin Police Association, and on Friday afternoon President Mike Sheffield called for Knee's resignation. "This action ... by Chief Knee proves what we have long suspected that he no longer has the heart, guts, or backbone to defend those in uniform," Sheffield said. Instead, Sheffield said that in deciding to terminate Schroeder, Knee simply bowed to political pressure. In fact, in finding a violation of the department's policy on the use of deadly force as cited by the CRP in their recommendations Knee disagreed with the results of the Internal Affairs investigation, which concluded that Schroeder's use of her gun was within department policy. Although Knee alone has the final say on discipline, Sheffield insists that in finding fault with Schroeder's actions, Knee made a poor decision. "Internal Affairs found that Julie Schroeder did not violate the use of force policy when she shot Daniel Rocha," Sheffield said. "I can only assume at this point that [the decision to override IA] was based on the politicization of the process."
Under civil service law, Schroeder has 10 days to file an appeal of Knee's decision, which would be considered by either a three-member panel of the civil service commission or by an independent arbitrator.