Civil Rights Lawsuit Filed Against APD

Police deptartment and former officers violated man's civil rights when they held him down, Tasered him, and punched him repeatedly in connection with a minor traffic accident last fall, suit charges

The Austin Police Department and former officers William Heilman, Christopher Gray, and Joel Follmer violated the civil rights of E. Ramon Hernandez when they held him down, Tasered him, and punched him repeatedly in connection with a minor traffic accident near the corner of Burnet and Steck last fall, Hernandez charges in a civil rights lawsuit filed Dec. 12 in federal court.

According to the lawsuit, Hernandez, who was dealing with a difficult divorce at the time, had a panic attack as a crowd gathered near the scene of the accident, which occurred around 9:30am on Sept. 21, 2005. In order to get his bearings, Hernandez says he took his Bible and walked slightly down the block, dropped to his knees, and began praying for "God to help him feel better," attorney Amber Vazquez Bode wrote in Hernandez's court petition. As he knelt on the sidewalk, Heilman arrived on the scene and, without provocation and without first assessing the scene, Bode argues, unholstered his Taser and pointed it at Hernandez. Hernandez put his arms up and stood, following Heilman's direction, Bode writes. Nonetheless, Heilman fired his Taser at Hernandez, shooting him seven times.

According to Bode, the repeated Taser strikes, combined with Hernandez's already panicked mental state, were "extremely painful and disorienting" to 25-year-old Hernandez. Still, Heilman didn't stop, the civil suit charges; instead, he pulled out his baton and began beating Hernandez. Although Hernandez was on the ground – face down in an anthill – Heilman, along with Gray and rookie Follmer, who arrived as Heilman's "backup," continued beating Hernandez: In all, Gray delivered 14 punches, and Follmer, straddling Hernandez's back, delivered five punches to Hernandez's abdomen. Gray, Bode writes, even "took a water break" before he "resumed in taking part in the beating." While Hernandez suffered multiple injuries, the officers walked away without injury – save for bloodied knuckles, writes Bode. In all, she argues, the officers' actions were "malicious" and "sadistic."

While Hernandez was originally jailed for seven days, held on a variety of charges – including assault on a police officer – he was eventually released and all charges were dropped. Heilman and Gray were tried and acquitted of criminal misconduct. Heilman and Follmer are no longer with the department; Gray was given 70 days off for his role in the incident, a portion of which was captured on an in-car video camera.

Hernandez also charges that detectives in the APD's Integrity Crimes Unit displayed inappropriate bias in their investigation of the incident, helping the officers with the wording of their statements to investigators in a way that would help justify their actions, and that Internal Affairs investigators compelled Hernandez to come alone, without an attorney, to an interview where they coerced him into making statements that would benefit the officers. "The investigation surrounding Hernandez's assault demonstrates a clear pattern and practice by APD to coerce false statements from victims in order to exonerate officers accused of excessive use of force and assist the accused officers in changing their stories in a manner that would decrease their criminal culpability."

Terry Keel, who represented both Heilman and Gray against criminal charges, told the Statesman that the accusations in Hernandez's federal suit are false, that the two officers did nothing wrong, and that they are planning to file a counterclaim against Hernandez. "He attacked the officers," Keel said. (Unfortunately, there is no video evidence to back this allegation since the officers' cars weren't placed so that the in-car video could capture the entire scene.) Hernandez assaulted all three officers, Keel claims, "and placed all three officers in danger."

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Austin Police Department, APD, William Heilman, Christopher Gray, Joel Follmer, Ramon Hernandez, Terry Keel, Amber Vazquez Bode, excessive force, civil rights

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