Unsuspended Judgments

Battle lines already drawn over the police shooting of Kevin Brown

Mourners gather outside Mount Zion Baptist Church 
Friday, June 8, for the funeral of Kevin Brown.
Mourners gather outside Mount Zion Baptist Church Friday, June 8, for the funeral of Kevin Brown. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

At a press conference last week outside the Austin NAACP offices, the family of Kevin Brown, shot and killed by Austin Police Department Sgt. Michael Olsen after a scuffle and chase outside a nightclub June 3, implored the media to remember that Brown had been a good boy. He was 25 years old, the father of a 5-year-old, well-liked by many, enjoyed sports and video games, and was an active member of the Mount Zion Baptist Church. He had a modest criminal record – including a pot possession charge and a felony assault charge (in connection with a botched pot deal) – but that didn't mean he wasn't a kind person, Austin National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Nelson Linder and members of Brown's family said, and it certainly didn't mean he deserved to be shot in the back.

All this is true.

Also true is that Olsen, a 12-year APD veteran, has enjoyed a reputation within and outside the department as a thoughtful, articulate man. Olsen is a father, active in his church, and admired for spending his vacation time doing missionary work in Africa. Olsen too has had his run-ins with the law – including (most infamously) a 60-day suspension connected with the 2002 arrest of Jeffrey Thornton on East Sixth Street. But, in the same way that Brown's record doesn't necessarily mean he was a bad person – a thug, up to no good, dangerous, or, ultimately, a violent, deadly threat – Olsen's record doesn't necessarily mean that he's a bad cop, racist, ill-trained, or a hothead who should have been dumped from the force long ago.

Brown and Olsen might both be great, wonderful people. Or, they might both be complete screwups. Most likely, the truth about their characters lies somewhere in between – and right now that truth is irrelevant. What is relevant to our community understanding – and still largely unknown – is the truth of what happened just after 4am on June 3, in the parking lot behind Chester's Nightclub and in the space between the parking lot and the courtyard of a nearby apartment complex where Brown died, from two gunshots in his back. What is likely even more relevant, and much harder to determine, is the truth of why all this happened.

The Story Thus Far

Officer Michael Olsen is known for using his vacation time 
for missionary work.
Officer Michael Olsen is known for using his vacation time for missionary work.

Officially, details of the shooting have thus far been sparse but consistent: Olsen was working overtime on a directed neighborhood detail with at least one other officer, Ivan Ramos, near Chester's on East 12th near Airport Boulevard, when he was approached by a club employee, who was worried that a man in a red shirt, Brown, was carrying a handgun. Brown was standing among a crowd in the club's parking lot when Olsen and Ramos approached. In a briefing last week, APD Assistant Chief David Carter said a "struggle ensued" when Olsen attempted to question Brown and that Brown fled, scaled a fence, and took off running through a neighboring apartment complex. (The very brief struggle, during which Brown slapped Olsen's hand away from his shirt and ran, was recorded on an amateur video broadcast repeatedly on TV news and posted online.) The officers followed – Olsen ran around the fence, trying to head Brown off, said attorney Tom Stribling, a union lawyer who represented Olsen in the first hours after the shooting. By the time Olsen made it into the complex, he was ahead of Brown, Stribling explained, and Brown was still running, toward Olsen. Olsen saw Brown fidgeting as he ran, reaching repeatedly toward his waistband, where, Olsen had been told, it appeared that Brown had stashed a handgun. Olsen repeatedly yelled for Brown to "show his hands," Stribling said. Brown slowed his pace but did not stop running. Olsen again yelled for Brown to raise his hands; he didn't, and Olsen fired several rounds, killing Brown.

Initially, officials asked Travis Co. Medical Examiner David Dolinak to withhold the preliminary findings of Brown's autopsy, reasoning that it would help maintain the integrity of the criminal inquiry, to ensure that the recollections of any witnesses remained untainted by outside information. But the decision angered some, including the NAACP's Linder, who charged the decision was likely nefarious, giving the police a chance to shore up a fabricated story about the shooting. Notably, the official story hadn't changed by the time Dolinak released a brief summary on June 7, reporting that Brown was shot twice in the back.

The location of the shots has fueled rumors, accusations, and speculations that now dominate public discussion about the shooting – suggesting it's impossible to view Olsen's actions as justified. That might or might not be the case – there's still no information regarding the angle or trajectory of the shots, which means there's no way to determine exactly what Brown was doing when he was shot. Perhaps Brown turned as Olsen fired, for example. Or, maybe Olsen panicked; maybe he thought he saw something that wasn't there. At this point, there's no way to tell – and there are no facts to suggest that the official story is a lie, nor is there enough detail available to determine whether the shooting was justified.

The official request of city leaders – including APD acting Chief Cathy Ellison and Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald – is that the community allow the investigation to run its course and that people withhold speculation and judgment until the criminal investigation is complete. As the investigation entered its first day, it appeared that maybe – just maybe – this would happen: that APD officials would approach the public with straightforward transparency. So too, it appeared that community members – particularly, in this case, the NAACP, the Texas Civil Rights Project, and the media (most importantly the Austin American-Statesman, but also local TV) – would not only welcome this approach (if not embrace it whole) but would also follow course. Immediately following the shooting, Austin Police Association President Jim Beck took the unprecedented step of calling Linder directly, with news of the shooting – a step that the daily praised on its editorial page.

This is not to say that the police department or the officers involved in Brown's death would not, or should not, be held accountable, their actions scrutinized and judged. But for a brief moment, it looked like this time the shooting might not be plagued by knee-jerk assumptions: that the police are completely incapable of conducting an investigation of their own – that their only interest would be in covering for Olsen and Ramos, regardless of what eyewitnesses or the evidence tells them; or, conversely, that Brown was alone responsible for his own death – that cops risk their lives every day to protect others and that if Brown weren't guilty of something, he never would have run.

The Real Problem

Kevin Brown's family and friends describe him as a loving 
son and father.
Kevin Brown's family and friends describe him as a loving son and father.

The facts still aren't in, but the hope that things might be different has all but disappeared. Controversy and conflicting accounts of the shooting continue to dominate the public discourse. On June 8, the daily reported that a witness, Jason Johnson, saw Olsen begin firing almost immediately, right after Brown jumped the fence and before Brown made it onto the apartment complex grounds. For whatever reason, it wasn't until the following morning that the daily published police reaction to the account, reporting that APD homicide investigators in fact had found no evidence to support Johnson's assertion. The evidence "will show that all shots were fired from the same area," Lt. Pete Morin told the paper.

Unfortunately, Chief Ellison inadvertently added fuel to the fire on Thursday, June 7, when she told reporters that, at least on its face, the fact that Brown was shot in the back suggests Olsen might have violated the department's use-of-force policy, which bans the shooting of a fleeing suspect – unless that person "poses a threat of death or serious physical harm to either the officer or another."

Ellison's comments prompted Beck to issue the union's first public comment on the incident, saying that Ellison was out of line to make such statements before an administrative inquiry had even begun. Whether Olsen violated any specific department policy will not be vetted until the criminal inquiry is complete and a grand jury has decided whether Olsen will face any criminal charges. "It is premature to release such an opinion," Beck said. "We call upon the leaders of our community and now our acting chief to not rush judgment when we only know part of the facts." Ellison responded quickly, sending out a department-wide e-mail explaining that reporters had used only a portion of her comments. In all, she said, while "it may appear that the shooting doesn't look consistent" with the use-of-force policy, it is important to "wait for more details before drawing any conclusion."

As mourners gathered for Brown's funeral Friday morning, additional, disturbing details of the shooting were offered by another witness, Antoine Thompson, during a press conference called by TCRP Director Jim Harrington. According to Thompson, he was sitting with his girlfriend in the bedroom of her apartment just after 4am when he heard gunshots. "I was like, these gunshots are too close," he recalled, and he jumped up to look out the window, which looks directly into the complex courtyard. Below, he said, in the scene illuminated by a police flashlight, he saw Brown lying face down with his shirt hiked up to his armpits, an officer sitting astride his buttocks, fastening him into a set of handcuffs. Thompson said he could hear Brown repeating a single phrase: "I don't want to die."

Thompson said Brown's words – more mournful than pleading – shook him. "I panicked, thinking, maybe I could help, bring them some towels or something." Thompson said he rushed out of the apartment door, but before he could offer to lend a hand, he was jumped by several officers, who pushed him to the ground hard enough to knock out a dental bridge. He was quickly arrested – for "interfering with the duties of a public servant" – and taken to jail (where he says he was roughed up again by sheriff's deputies) but released just hours later. When he returned to the apartment complex that afternoon, police were still there. At no point did police record Thompson's witness statement, Harrington said – and as of June 8, he noted, there was no official record of Thompson's arrest. The odd case of Thompson's encounter, Harrington said, again calls into question the integrity of the process. "This is part of the problem with transparency," he said. "[It] seems like they just wanted to get him away from the scene." Police spokeswoman Toni Chovanetz confirmed only that police "did take an individual into custody" at the scene, and that person was later released.

By now, what seems clear is that the idea that the criminal inquiry might be allowed to conclude without battle lines being drawn is wishful thinking. There are plenty of reasons members of the community – and, particularly, members of the black community – might not trust the cops. In each of the last four officer-involved shootings, for example, the victim was black or brown, and the cop shooter was white. That is a completely relevant fact, but its specific meaning isn't so easy to pin down. "It's déjã vu all over again," said Eastside activist the Rev. Sterling Lands. "The reality is that I'm just sick of black men getting killed." Still, Lands said, the real question is how do we keep this from happening again? What is the real problem – do we know or want to find out? "We don't like to use the word 'racism,' but the reality is that [racism] is entrenched in every system," he said. "It is an issue that can be solved. ... But you have to want to solve it." end story

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