Point Austin: Not About the Cameras

The video is important – but the Sanders shooting has not been justified

Point Austin
"Generally, how can a department that cannot police itself adequately, be trusted to police other individuals?" – Chief Art Acevedo, in a Nov. 5 memorandum concerning the indefinite suspension of Detective Christopher Dunn

It's arguable that Austin Police Department Detective Chris Dunn was fired for prematurely anticipating what Chief Art Acevedo finally decided to do in the case of Officer Leonardo Quintana and his fatal shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II and wounding of Sir Smith. As documented in the KeyPoint Government Solu­tions review and acknowledged by APD, Dunn set out, from the beginning of his role in the Internal Affairs investigation, to exonerate the officers involved regardless of the evidence and to block lines of inquiry that might suggest otherwise. (He was foolish enough to record his intentions in his e-mails to other investigators.) "In doing these sustained deliberate acts," Acevedo concluded, "Det. Dunn has lost all credibility himself as an effective police officer or an investigator. ... I cannot and will not retain an officer who engages in prejudicial and partisan biases and intentionally refuses to obtain all relevant information in a critical incident to protect another officer." (Jordan Smith recounts last week's events in "Questions Unanswered," p.26.)

Dunn has rightfully been terminated (he plans to appeal), and Quintana has received a 15-day suspension – although not for the shooting but for failing to activate his in-car camera. One could readily conclude that under APD's purview, the latter technical violation is a greater offense than shooting two people in a moment of panic, but investigators decided – and in this they were anticipated by the Travis County grand jury (unsurprisingly) and the Citi­zen Review Panel (somewhat surprisingly) – that Quintana had a "reasonable belief" that his life was in danger and fired in what he believed to be self-defense.

I can understand that conclusion (even though Acevedo suggested he would have acted differently), and it's clear from the record that Quin­tana is an experienced, well-respected officer to whom investigators were inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. I still don't agree. In fact, there is ample reason to believe that investigators dismissed evidence that undermines Quintana's self-defense claims and leads instead toward a conclusion of panicked overreaction – akin to that that led to the dismissal of Officer Julie Schroeder in the 2005 fatal shooting of Daniel Rocha.

Anomalies and Contradictions

There are obvious unresolved anomalies.

The officers suspected the vehicle's occupants were armed, yet from the available audio evidence and their own testimony, they initially approached the stop almost casually (perhaps because they thought the suspects were sound asleep) – until Quintana saw the gun and jumped away.

Quintana says there was "a struggle" over Sanders' handgun and that Sanders grabbed it and leaned away, provoking the officer's shooting reaction, yet according to forensics, Sanders' grip was inadequate even to leave fingerprints on the gun.

Quintana says he fired at Sanders' "silhouette" through the car's rear window, yet the officers also testified that the car's windows were so darkly tinted that they couldn't see into it without flashlights, and at first Quintana didn't see Sanders at all.

Although Quintana jumped to the rear of the car and Sanders hadn't turned sufficiently even to receive both bullets in the front of his body, Quintana immediately began firing instead of taking cover – so quickly that officers Mohammad Siddiqui and John Alexander Hitzelberg were nearly in the line of fire, and Quintana and Hitzelberg both thought at first that the ricocheted glass fragments from the rear window were shots (in fact, nonexistent) from Sanders' gun.

Those are just the most obvious problems with the "reasonable belief" self-defense justification of the Sanders shooting – without even addressing the shooting of the visibly terrified Smith. But in sum, the incident seems very reminiscent of Schroeder's panicked reaction to the mistaken thought that Rocha might have grabbed her Taser – and her immediate kill-shot in response.

No License to Kill

Some of these questions may be addressed in the lawsuit filed by Sanders' family, and were at least in the background of the investigation. Dunn and lead Internal Affairs investigator Detective Christian Harkin mutually agreed not to ask Quintana questions about the Schroeder incident (among other matters), because that might lead to answers unfavorable to Quintana. (It's also not clear why Harkin and other investigators received no discipline at all – was Dunn writing those incriminating e-mails to nobody?)

I'm well aware that the officers had strong reasons to believe that the people they were rousting had recently been up to no good and that Nate Sanders (although the officers didn't know it was him) had apparently, stupidly decided to try on thug life to see if it suited him, turning away from his family and a chance for an education. He was drugged up with a gun in a suspect vehicle in the middle of the night – certainly a disaster in waiting, and it caught up with him. Even the notorious anti-cop sentiments at that apartment complex are hardly unanimous; Quin­tana was watching the place precisely because residents had complained that thugs with guns were taking over the parking lot. Like nearly all police shootings, this is not a story of evil vs. innocence, but neither does that mean it was ultimately justifiable.

We owe the Citizen Review Panel (and City Manager Marc Ott) thanks for the necessary independent investigation that exposed Dunn, although the panel's recommendation of a minimum 90-day suspension of Quintana for the video violation and other (redacted) tactical errors fell on deaf ears at APD. Departmental in-car video policy is now seriously stiffened, and this repeated tragedy should be the final impetus to get automatic digital cameras into the cars. So be it.

But despite Acevedo's assurances otherwise, this is not about the cameras.

As I wrote at the time of the Schroeder firing, "The principal reason we give police officers guns is that we believe they are both mature enough and sufficiently trained to distinguish between those rare occasions when deadly force is truly necessary and the many more times that it isn't." It in fact appears that this was an occasion when deadly force was not truly necessary – and the outcome was such that, as happened in the Schroeder precedent, Quintana should no longer have the ability, or authority, to repeat the same mistake.

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Austin Police Department, Chris Dunn, Nathaniel Sanders II, Art Acevedo, Leonardo Quintana, KeyPoint Government Solutions, Citizen Review Panel, Julie Schroeder, Daniel Rocha

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